Local food is the hot trend for 2009, but advocates of the movement are cool to possible new food safety regulations soon coming from Congress and the Food and Drug Administration.

Rated as the No. 4 food trend for 2009 by the Food Channel, the local-food movement has been embraced by consumers, retailers and foodservice operators.

The number of farmers markets in the U.S. nearly totaled nearly 4,685 in August 2008, 6.8% higher than August 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service.

Last summer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark., said locally grown produce made up about 20% of its offerings in the summer months.

But small grower and organic advocates and others were alarmed earlier this year with food safety legislation from the Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. Her bill, H.R. 875, also called the Food Safety Modernization Act, would "effectively criminalize" organic farming, said the Web site www.campaignforliberty.org.

That claim and other alarms about DeLauro's bill have since been dismissed by many in the mainstream of the organic and locally grown movement.

Still, leaders of the local movement see cause for concern in food safety bills in issues like compliance with traceability or the potential problems in conforming to the metrics called for in the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.

Neither uniform food safety regulation nor exemption for small growers is the answer, said Elanor Starmer, a contributor to The Ethicurean blog, which is a Web site largely devoted to sustainable, local and organic food issues.

"Food safety can and should be a pre-competitive issue, with basic, common-sense standards followed by everyone and more stringent regulation targeting the most risky products and processes," she said in an e-mail response to a question from The Packer.

Industry view

Being small should not exclude growers from mandatory food safety legislation, one key industry lobbyist said.

"Food safety is not a size-dependent issue," said Tom Stenzel, president of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association. "A 1-acre farm darn well should meet the same food safety standards of a 10,000 acre farm."

Another industry representative agreed that smaller growers shouldn't expect to be excluded from food safety oversight but said regulations should be flexible to fit different sizes of operations.

"You can't say that some people are exempt from food safety - obviously everybody has to do it," said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.

Means said that that birds, cows and bad water are equal-opportunity offenders, which means smaller growers can't ignore control measures.

"You have to have those programs, but they don't have to be as complex as someone with a huge operation," she said. "For small growers, training could be around the back of a pickup truck."

As the House Energy and Commerce Committee begins to markup a food safety bill in June, Starmer said said food safety regulations likely are coming in some form, whether that might mean a national leafy greens marketing agreement, mandated good agricultural practices or other provisions from a handful of food safety bills now under consideration.

"The chance that local, small-scale, organic, direct-marketed food is going to be exempt from that discussion is highly unlikely, and there are reasons why we should take a seat at the table - namely, because if we do then we can influence the process, and if we don't we risk either having a one-size-fits-all policy foisted upon us or having Big Ag use food safety competitively against us with consumers," she said.

Phase-in of implement and technical assistance might be provided by USDA or state departments of agriculture for smaller growers, he said, much like Congress did for small meat processors when it introduced HACCP into the meat industry.