Earthbound Farm, an organic grower in San Juan Bautista (San Benito County), packages and sells bags of lettuce.
Small farmers in California who have led a national movement away from industrial agriculture face a looming crackdown on food safety that they say is geared to big corporate farms and will make it harder for them to survive.
The small growers, many of whom grow dozens of different kinds of vegetables and fruits, say the inherent benefits of their size, and their sensitivity to extra costs, are being ignored.
They are fighting to carve out a sanctuary in legislation that would bring farmers under the strict purview of the Food and Drug Administration, an agency more familiar with pharmaceuticals than food and local farms.
A bill before the Senate is riding a bipartisan groundswell created by recent outbreaks of E. coli, salmonella and other contamination in everything from fresh spinach to cookie dough.
And the small farmers face opponents in consumer groups, victims of food contamination, large growers and the Obama administration, who say no farm and no food should get a pass on safety.
An even tougher version of the legislation passed the House last summer. Now, a behind-the-scenes battle is raging in the Senate over how to regulate small and organic growers without ruining them - and still protect consumers.
If two versions of the overhaul pass, Congress would work to merge them.
The legislation would mandate a range of programs intended to bolster food safety. The FDA would gain greater authority to regulate how products are grown, stored, transported, inspected, traced from farm to table and recalled when needed.
But biologically diverse and organic growers argue that the problems that have plagued the food industry lie elsewhere.
They point to the sale of bagged vegetables, cut fruit and other processed food in which vast quantities of produce from different farms are mixed, sealed in containers and shipped long distances, creating a host for harmful bacteria.
The legislation does not address what some experts suspect is the source of E. coli contamination: the large, confined animal feeding operations that are breeding grounds for E. coli and are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the FDA.
"It does not take on the industrial animal industry and the abuses going on," said Tom Willey of T&D Willey Farms in Madera, an organic grower of Mediterranean vegetables. "The really dangerous organisms we're dealing with out here, and trying to protect our produce and other foodstuffs from, are coming out the rear end of domestic animals."
No one in Congress or the administration has yielded in a bureaucratic turf battle between the Department of Agriculture, which regulates meat, poultry and eggs, and the FDA, which regulates all other food.
The controversy began with the spinach E. coli outbreak near San Juan Bautista in 2006 that left four people dead, 35 people with acute kidney failure and 103 hospitalized. The bacteria, known as E. coli O157:H7, first appeared in hamburger meat in the early 1980s and migrated to produce, mainly lettuce and other leafy greens that are cut, mixed and bagged for the convenience of shoppers.
Since then, there have been dozens of contamination cases, leading Congress to rewrite food safety laws by giving much more power to the FDA. But small growers worry that they, and consumers, will suffer in the sweep of reform.
"How do we trust that the FDA is going to know about things that the San Francisco Bay Area has been very progressive on - the field to fork, fresh, grow local, buy local - all of that?" said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel. "The organic people are feeling that the regulations the FDA may promulgate will be so safety oriented, it'll put them out of business."
Consumer groups say they care about small farmers but that safety comes first.
"Our principle is that food should be safe, whatever the source," said Sandra Eskin, director of the Pew Health Group's food safety campaign, one of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which Monday sponsored a public meeting on the issue with federal officials in Seaside (Monterey County).
"People care profoundly about all these issues: feeding their families, food safety, local agriculture," Eskin said. "It's a passionate discussion and understandably so. Everybody eats."
Tom Nassif, head of Western Growers, which represents large produce growers, said small growers should not be exempt.
"If the small guy who sells to a farmers' market gets a family sick, it's a blip on the radar screen," Nassif said. "There's not a big hue and cry, because it didn't affect hundreds of people. What about those people? Doesn't their food safety count?"
The tension that has come with food safety reforms was on display after the spinach outbreak rocked California. Large growers embraced costly science-based safety protocols for all leafy greens - guidelines that federal regulators are considering taking nationwide.
However, a UC Davis study last year by Shermain Hardesty and Yoko Kusunose found that the rules have put smaller growers at a disadvantage because their compliance costs are spread over fewer acres. Hardesty said costs may be as high as $100 an acre.
Large produce buyers such as Wal-Mart and McDonald's have gone much further than the industry standards. They have imposed rules of their own that have forced many California farmers who supply them to fence off waterways, poison wildlife to keep animals out of fields and destroy crop hedgerows that support beneficial insects.
Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said Monday the administration is keeping a "close watch" on these so-called "super metrics," acknowledging that they have harmed the environment but said, "nobody gets a pass on food safety."
Increasing the danger
Willey, the Madera farmer, argued that many food safety rules tend "to push us to embrace a paradigm of sterility," which, in the long run, increases the danger.
"When you create microbial vacuums, they can be even more easily taken over by pathogenic organisms," he said. "In organic agriculture, we depend tremendously on a cooperative effort with beneficial microorganisms. My whole soil fertility system is based on that. Actually, soil fertility planetwide is based on that."
Efforts to modify proposed rules to make compliance easier for biologically diversified farms have been more successful in the Senate than in the House. New language that requires the FDA to consider farm size, crop diversity, organic requirements and other issues has been added.
"While none of these things in themselves solves the cause for concern, they certainly point strongly in the direction of the FDA needing to take into account these considerations," said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
Hoefner called the House bill a one-size-fits-all approach that would be a "complete disaster" for small farms.