Action Alert (Texas): Tell State Health Department to Give Farmers Straight Answers

In 2013, we won a major victory in Texas with the passage of the DSHS Better Communications Act, HB 1392. This important bill, sponsored by Representative Susan King, requires the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) to respond promptly when a farmer or food producer asks about what the law is and how it applies to their situation.

Seems pretty basic, right? Sadly, you would be shocked by how many farmers and food producers have run into problems simply getting a straight answer as to what they have to do to comply with the law. It’s one of the most common problems we hear, all over the state.

Passing HB 1392 was a major step forward for the local foods movement in Texas.

The next step is agency rulemaking. DSHS recently proposed regulations to implement HB 1392. The proposed regulations mostly follow the language of the bill, but the agency has added a provision for the requests to be submitted on an approved form.

It’s not clear in the proposed regulations whether the form is actually required or simply preferred. If it is mandatory, the form could pose a problem because it requires people to identify the specific rule that they’re concerned about — but, many times, it’s not clear what rules even apply in the first place.

The agency is taking public comment until Monday, February 3, 2014.

Click here to read FARFA’s comments to DSHS.

We need specific, individual stories so that the decision-makers at the agency understand the problems farmers and producers have faced in trying to get straight answers. Have you had trouble figuring out what you had to do to comply with state law? Ever asked the Texas Department of State Health Services a question and gotten either no answer or contradictory answers? It’s important that you speak up now — see the “Take Action” section below!

 

TAKE ACTION

 
farfa-take-actionYou can submit your comments by email or mail, by Monday, February 3:

EMAIL: lewis.ressler@dshs.state.tx.us.

MAIL: Lewis Ressler, Foods Group, Policy, Standards and Quality Assurance Unit, Department of State Health Services, P.O. Box 149347, Mail Code 1987, Austin, Texas 78714-9347
 

SAMPLE COMMENT:

 
Re: 25 TAC §§231.1 – 231.4

Dear Mr. Ressler:

I am a ___________ [farmer, chef, food producer ….]. I am concerned about the proposed rule to implement HB 1392. Specifically, I am concerned about whether the specific form is required and what would need to be submitted as part of the “request for determination.”

Share your story about needing help to figure out what rules apply or what you had to do to comply with state law. Since the form will be posted on the agency website, include any problems that you have had finding things on DSHS’s website.

I urge DSHS to make the form optional, rather than mandatory, and to respond promptly to all requests about how the food regulations apply to people’s individual situations. It is in everyone’s best interests for DSHS to provide the clearest guidance possible for people seeking to provide food to Texans.

Sincerely,
[Name]

 

MORE INFO ABOUT HB 1392

 
Read the regulation: www.sos.state.tx.us/texreg/archive/January32014/Proposed%20Rules/25.HEALTH%20SERVICES.html#43

The Department of State Health Services (DSHS) has primary jurisdiction in areas where there is no local health department. In addition, many local health departments enforce the DSHS regulations, rather than adopting specific local regulations.

HB 1392, the DSHS Better Communications Act, essentially requires that DSHS tell farmers and food producers what they are legally required to do, in a timely manner. In order to qualify for this requirement, you must submit a written request to DSHS asking for the information.

The request can be for general information (such as “where can I find the requirements for on-farm poultry processing?”) or for how the legal requirements apply to your specific circumstances (such as “Will it meet the regulatory requirements if I use gravel for the flooring in the slaughter area?”). The latter is termed a “request for determination.” DSHS is required to respond to your written request within 30 days.

If you comply with DSHS’s response, an inspector cannot issue or citation or fine you for violating that regulation.