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WASHINGTON -- With the clock ticking on food-safety legislation, a Senate committee held its first hearing Oct. 22 where Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association's president and chief executive officer, urged Congress not to ease food-safety mandates for small farmers, but rather to offer assistance to help them comply with the new program.

At the two-hour hearing, United Fresh offered advice to the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee on one of the more contentious issues in the food-safety legislative debate: how to extend food-safety requirements to small and organic farming operations without driving them out of business.

Mr. Stenzel urged the Senate to "reject calls to water down the food-safety requirements" for small farms and organic producers. "Our industry has learned the painful lesson that we are only as strong as our weakest link," he said.

"We believe technical assistance, training and financial support -- including reduced fees for all small businesses -- are more appropriate ways to assist small-resource farmers and produce distributors to comply with important food-safety and traceability standards," said Mr. Stenzel, one of two food industry representatives asked to testify at the hearing.

The new chairman of the powerful committee, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), said that he hoped to mark up a food-safety bill "pretty soon and hopefully get it down to the White House before year's end." Since the House of Representatives passed its version of a food-safety bill in July, the Senate had been tackling health-care reform, fueling doubts that food-safety legislation could be passed this year.

Though many in the food industry and consumer groups favor food-safety legislation, some farm groups have been vocal in complaining about the bill's impact on small operations during visits to members of Congress and in widely circulated blogs.

The issue of extending food-safety mandates to small farmers came up during August town hall meetings on health care reform, said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who asked Food & Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, another witness at the hearing, to comment on the issue.

"We want to produce a system that reflects the diverse array of agriculture," said Dr. Hamburg. The FDA is striving for a flexible system but want to make sure foods meet safety standards, she said. Dr. Hamburg and Mike Taylor, FDA's senior advisor, were scheduled to tour California and Florida farms but had to change their plans to attend this hearing, she added.

Dr. Hamburg urged the Senate to add tougher enforcement authorities to S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, when it marks up the bill. FDA needs explicit authority to access food records during routine inspections, share confidential commercial and trade secret information with other regulators and consider HACCP violations under the legal definition of "adulterated" foods to trigger stiff enforcement measures, she said.

FDA also needs language that would allow the agency to adjust the inspection frequency prescribed in the legislation in the event of funding shortfalls and to authorize FDA to use accredited third parties to help meet inspection quotas for foreign facilities, she said.

The Senate bill also needs to require food facilities to pay registration fees to help cover the cost of the new inspection plan, said Dr. Hamburg.

"If we're going to do this job, we better come up with the resources," said Sen. Harkin, who has yet to voice his position on registration fees. The current Senate bill relies solely on annual appropriations from Congress.

And if Congress does not act on food-safety legislation this year, warned Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, it would be "like setting the table for the next outbreak."