Across the table with Adam Sharp: Keeping food safe

When I first met Jeff Zellers, he was facing the prospect that his family’s 70-year legacy of growing fresh produce was about to be regulated into submission. Today, the farm’s still in business, thanks to Jeff’s determination and Farm Bureau’s help.

In the early ’90s, the federal government began studying how to make food safer. Jeff supported the effort because he wanted to grow the safest possible produce. What worried him was that products he used to protect his crops could be arbitrarily eliminated. And he worried whether a single farmer could do anything about it. Enter Farm Bureau. We helped Jeff engage with other farmers from throughout the country, got him face-to-face with lawmakers and regulators and helped him share a straightforward message: Science, not politics, should determine how we keep food safe. Common sense prevailed, and in 1996 implementation of the Food Quality Protection Act was achieved. Food got safer, and Jeff stayed in business.

Jeff’s experience motivated him to become a leader in the county and state Farm Bureau and ultimately serve as first vice president on the board. Today, another round of food safety regs is on his mind. And in your wallet.

The Food Safety Modernization Act and some new industry standards have added immensely to the costs of growing and selling produce. Much of Jeff’s rich organic soil has given way to concrete slabs, sheet metal buildings and stainless steel machinery. To oversimplify, the infrastructure helps make Jeff’s produce cleaner and safer. The federal government says its new regs cost the produce industry $701 million the first year and $472 million annually thereafter.

While Jeff accepts high standards, he wonders why his farm workers’ hairnets and $1,000 per week in disposable gloves aren’t required at restaurants or groceries. Jeff absorbs some of the cost. You and I are paying, too. “As our costs increase we’re either going out of business or passing those costs along to the consumer,” Jeff told me.

The cost of regulation isn’t limited to food. The average American household last year paid about $15,000 to comply with government rules. That’s a national total of $1.8 trillion, higher than what individuals and corporations paid in income tax. Everything we have or do is more expensive because of rules written in Washington, D.C.

Jeff doesn’t oppose regulation, but when rules are piled on top of rules he thinks the question should be asked, “Is there really a benefit in the next step of regulation?” He adds, “There is nothing you do in life that will ever have zero risk. When your goal is zero, there’s not enough money to get there.”

Jeff’s story drives home the need for us food enthusiasts to think carefully about our expectations. We want fresh, local food that’s safe. But if we ask that it be regulated too heavily, we put the farmers who grow it for us at risk. Finding middle ground that’s satisfactory for farmers and consumers is what we do in Farm Bureau.

Regulatory costs are the second largest budget item for the average household

HOUSING: $17,148


OTHER: $12,423


FOOD: $6,602


Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Competitive Enterprise Institute; Based on BLS Average Household Income

Featured image: Jeff Zellers (c) talks with new American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall who toured Jeff’s farm last month. That’s me, or the back of me, rockin’ the hairnet. For some reason, Jeff and Zippy aren’t wearing one!

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