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California Organic Farmers Worry About New FDA Food Safety Rules

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MONTEREY COUNTY (KPIX 5) – California’s organic farmers are sounding the alarm. They said new regulations the Food and Drug Administration is proposing to keep produce safe could put them out of business. Meanwhile, some consumers said it may be a price we have to pay.

Dana Dziadul’s on a mission. She almost died from eating contaminated cantaloupe as a child.

Now she is lobbying lawmakers to fund a new food safety law. “Getting the bill funded is the main part that we need,” Dziadul told KPIX 5.

Congress passed the so-called Food Safety Modernization Act in response to a growing number of food borne illnesses.

The biggest outbreak happened in 2006 in the Salinas Valley. Contaminated bagged spinach sickened nearly 300 people and led to three deaths.

Every year, the Centers for Disease Control estimates one in six Americans, around 48 million people, get sick from eating tainted food. They also say tainted food leads to 128,000 people being hospitalized and 3,000 deaths.

Even though the new law was passed in 2011, it’s still not in effect. Funding’s not the only hurdle: implementing the law is also hitting snags.

Critics said the proposed rules go way too far, essentially calling for a total sterilization of the farm environment. They said the law would spell the end of organic and sustainable farming as we know it in California.

“They are very much going to change the game for farmers,” said Judith Redmond. She runs Full Belly Farm just west of Sacramento, using certified organic methods.

Sheep replace tractors to clear fields here after a harvest. Strict new rules about manure wouldn’t allow that any more. “But it’s a time honored practice, it’s really, really good for the soil,” she said.

Redmond would also have to wait 45 days after composting to harvest her produce, making it hard to bring organic baby greens to market. “All of the specialty produce that people in the Bay Area love to eat from the farmers market. Sanitizing is not going to make sense for agriculture. We can’t go in that direction,” said Redmond.

Then there’s the expense, like testing irrigation water once a week. “For a smaller farm where the owners are working full time just to keep the farm afloat, it’s going to be pretty much impossible,” she said.

Hank Giclas, a senior scientist with the industry group Western Growers disagrees. “It doesn’t matter what size your farm or distribution, it’s important to protect your consumers,” he said. His group represents some of the biggest agribusinesses in the state.

He said members of his trade group, including large organic farmers, already follow strict new safety guidelines. Manure is banned, composting is regulated and water testing requirements are much stricter. “I am not aware of anyone going out of business so far,” he said.

Back in Washington, Dana Diadzul just hopes an agreement will come soon. “We we just want to help others and make sure they don’t go thru what I went through,” she said.

There were so many complaints about the FDA’s proposed produce rules that the agency re-opened its comment period. Final rules expected to be announced by this summer.

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