In the wake of growing public concerns over salmonella outbreaks and other highly publicized food safety issues, Congress passed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011, which placed more stringent standards on food growing and packaging operations. In negotiations preceding the Act's passage, farmers of local, sustainable food argued that these rules would unduly burden local agricultural operations or, at the extreme, drive them out of business by creating overly burdensome rules. These objections culminated in the addition of the Tester-Hagan Amendment to the Food Safety Modernization Act, which created certain exemptions for small farms. Proposed Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules to implement the Act threatened to weaken this victory for small farm groups, however, prompting a loud response from small farmers and local food proponents.
The FDA's second set of proposed rules, issued in September 2014 in response to these and other complaints, were, perhaps surprisingly, responsive to small farmers' concerns. Using comments submitted to the FDA, this article explores the responses of the agriculture industry and public health organizations, as well as small farm groups, consumers of local food, and sustainable agriculture interests (which, for simplicity, I alternately describe as comprising the “sustainable agriculture” or “small farm” movement), to three aspects of the FDA's proposed rules—involving manure application, on-farm packing activities, and exemptions for very small farms—to assess the strength of the sustainable agriculture movement. The rules involving manure application and on-farm packing, it turns out, reveal little about the independent political strength of the local food movement, as large industry groups also objected to these provisions. But for the third issue discussed here—exemptions for very small farms—the interests of sustainable agriculture groups were directly opposed to both industry and public health organizations, and yet prevailed. This suggests that the high salience of locavore and “slow food” issues might have allowed relatively small, dispersed interests to overcome traditional obstacles to political organization, and that the sustainable agriculture movement has indeed become an effective political force.