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Farmers want answers at FDA meeting this week

Union Leader Correspondent

August 19. 2013 12:38AM
Earl Cate flips freshly cut grass so that it will dry faster, a procedure known as tedding, at his farm on Ridge Road in Loudon. Farmers will have the chance to learn about proposed federal food safety rules on Tuesday in Hanover. (UNION LEADER FILE)

HANOVER — A meeting at Dartmouth College on Tuesday will give farmers an opportunity to meet with Food and Drug Administration officials and ask questions or express concerns regarding proposed federal regulations for farms, which some say are more suited to large-scale farms than the homespun New England variety.

The event will be hosted by the New Hampshire and Vermont departments of agriculture from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Hopkins Center on the campus of Dartmouth College in Hanover.

The session will specifically focus on FDA's proposed regulations for implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act, a 2011 law revamping food safety laws in an effort to increase the safety of the food supply.

Small New England farmers could be substantially impacted by at least two of the five regulatory overhauls, which specifically target fruit and vegetable growers as well as any foods processed and packaged on farms, Lorraine S. Merrill, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food, said on Friday.

More than 100 New Hampshire farmers recently attended three University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension workshops held to explain the proposed regulations, she said, but there is still confusion about the new rules and what their impact would be.

Being able to ask FDA officials directly about the regulations on Tuesday will help tremendously, she said.

However, as it stands now it appears the regulations are more appropriate for large specialized farms and not the typical New England farm that very often grows various types of produce, while at the same time keeps chickens, cattle, pigs and sheep, among other farm animals, Merrill said.

"Farmers very much care about the cleanliness and safety of the food they produce. But this new law is pretty sweeping, and it doesn't fit very well with our typical New England small- and medium-size diversified farms," Merrill said.

For example, there are restrictions on the use or application of manure and compost as fertilizers in terms of how long they would have to sit before food could be harvested from it, Merrill said, "and it's longer than any other previous guideline or rule."

There is also a requirement of keeping animal livestock and animals a certain distance from growing areas that could be a real challenge for small diversified farms, she said. "And then there's our wonderful New Hampshire wildlife life that romp around our fields and growing areas, and that's a concern."

There are some exemptions for small farms, but those exemptions have exceptions, she said. "They are very complicated rules and laws."

And even if a small farm is exempt from a certain regulation, it could prohibit a farm from growing or expanding in the future.

"At this point there are more questions than answers, which we are hoping to get from this meeting, a little better understanding. I'm hoping it's not going to be detrimental to our farmers," Merrill said.

"Our farmers have many questions of just what the implications of these rules are."

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, and Rep. Annie Kuster, D-NH, who set up the meeting, plan to participate in the public input session. In a prepared statement they said they have been "hearing concerns about these new rules potentially burdening small farmers throughout the region."

"Our farmers represent a vital part of our economy, and they deserve protections from excessive, burdensome regulations," Shaheen and Kuster said in a joint statement. "This public forum will give our farmers an opportunity to express concerns about these new rules and regulations, and we're pleased the FDA has extended this opportunity at our request. We hope the FDA will fully consider all the concerns raised by New England's farmers and consumers before finalizing these rules."

Merrill said the first hour and half of the meeting is set aside to explain the proposed regulations, with the last hour and a half open for questions.

The law passed in 2011, but these proposed regulations were released in January.

The public comment period ends Sept. 16, Merrill said.

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