GRAND FORKS -- Proposed new federal food safety laws will bring Big Brother down on the farm in a new way, causing heartache, harm and big costs to growers, processors and consumers with little gain in food safety, say North Dakota agricultural leaders.
The state's top farm regulator and other agricultural interests began a push this month speaking out against proposed new rules with which the Food and Drug Administration plans a big overhaul of the nation's food safety laws.
The rules were issued in January and are slated to take effect shortly after a public comment period ends Nov. 15.
They would effectively put the FDA into a new role regulating farm practices, acting as a new rival to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which traditionally has been the federal regulator of farmers and the first line of processing crops and livestock, said state Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring.
"Now you have the FDA trying to impose rules and regulations on production agriculture and they have no idea how food is produced," he said Wednesday from a trade conference in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where Mexican and Canadian ag officials commented on the significance of the new proposals.
The main intent of the new rules is good, he said: to avoid food-borne illnesses, such as the bacteria-based ones coming from spinach and cantaloupe that recently killed and sickened many.
But the effect of the 3,000 pages of new rules will hit lots of unnecessary targets, Goehring said.
The main impact will be in growers of fruit and vegetables often sold raw in states in New England and on the West Coast.
Most major crops in North Dakota, including wheat, corn, potatoes and sugar beets, are exempted because of the way they are handled and processed into food.
"But one shining example in North Dakota is sunflowers, (which) they are trying to treat -- because it's a nut -- much like tree nuts," such as pecans in California, Goehring said.
"But you are talking about something completely different," he said.
He and other state ag commissioners earlier this month in North Carolina met with FDA officials, and it became clear the agency had little idea of how sunflower production and processing work, he said.
That is a pretty big deal in North Dakota, the nation's leading sunflower state, with South Dakota a close second.
"We are trying to get growers, processors and grain handlers to understand that this is a set of proposed rules that if we do not have input to at this point in time, we are going to end up with rules that are going to have major unintended consequences for us to live with," said Bob Majkrzak, president and CEO of Red River Commodities in Fargo, one of 156 ag processing plants in the state.
His company has plants in several states and the Netherlands, processing, packaging and marketing sunflowers for food -- including peanut butter substitute SunButter and roasted seeds, shelled and unshelled -- and as bird seed.
The new FDA rules promise to treat sunflowers like lettuce, strawberries and nuts, he said.
An FDA spokeswoman confirmed that Wednesday in an email.
Which is nuts, Majkrzak said, because sunflowers grow and are harvested and handled so differently from real produce crops.
Majkrzak points to a letter from Michael Taylor, the FDA's point man on the new rules, published this week in the Bismarck Tribune, including the line that the "FDA does propose that growers not harvest produce with excrement."
It appears a sunflower grower will need to "defend his crops" from birds, deer and gophers, Majkrzak said. "I don't know how you do that."
It would suggest a farmer drive his combine around any sunflower plant on which a blackbird had left its mark, he said.
He buys field corn, cleans it and packages it as bird seed "for wild birds, to be put out into the same environment it came from, the field," Majkrzak said.
But the proposed new FDA rules consider such a "feed" product the same as human food, he said. That means if a customer found bacteria on birdseed, Majkrzak could be forced to recall all his supply, which would lead back to farmers, he said.
His bird seed, just like meat in a supermarket, already is sold as such and buyers understand how to handle and use them safely, he said. Sterilizing field corn before it's fed to wild birds is batty, he says.
"It's this Big Brother attitude that we always have to fix everything, and that is just not appropriate in this market."
Woody Barth, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, said he and other Farmers Union officials will be sure comments on sunflowers, especially, will be submitted to the FDA.
"We have some concerns, but overall we think they are good for the industry," Barth said of the new FDA rules. "It's been 80 years since they have been updated."
A main concern is the threat of new liability to growers for problems that show up in food down the line, Barth said.
"If this farmer is sending off good sunflowers -- and we know 99.99 percent of sunflowers going to get processed are in good condition -- we need to make sure we limit the liability for food-borne diseases to the proper person in processing."
Goehring said he and others will push Congress to delay implementation of the new FDA rules until they are improved.
"We are all about food safety," Goehring said. "But this is something that is going to cost the consumer and the processor and the producer so much, without any appreciable value."