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Small producers lobby the Senate for relief from food-safety bill

by Joan Murphy | April 14, 2010
WASHINGTON -- With landmark food-safety legislation likely to reach the Senate floor in the coming days, small growers and processors are pressuring lawmakers to exempt them from the traceability and fresh produce provisions.

The Senate was expected to vote on S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act, the week of April 19, and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) said that he would like to send it to President Obama for approval next month. The House of Representatives passed a similar, but more prescriptive, bill last summer.

But while sources said that most of the issues will have been ironed out before the bill reaches the Senate floor, 87 groups representing small-scale, local producers are urging lawmakers to change the bill to avoid layering new traceability and food plan requirements.

"The Senate is expected to vote soon on a sweeping overhaul of the nation's food-safety laws, but Senate bill 510 actually will strengthen the forces that have led to the consolidation of our food supply in the hands of a few industrial food producers, while harming small producers who give consumers the choice to buy fresh, healthy and local foods," said Bill Bullard, chief executive officer of R-CALF USA, which represents U.S. cattle producers and is spearheading the effort to change the bill.

"All of the well-publicized incidents of contamination in recent years -- whether in spinach, peppers or peanuts -- occurred in industrialized food supply chains that span national and even international boundaries," the groups wrote in an April 7 letter to senators. "Farmers and processors who sell directly to consumers and end-users have a direct relationship with their customers that ensures quality, safety, transparency and accountability."

The groups, which represent a variety of cooperatives, farmers markets and national ranchers, are rallying support for an amendment to be offered by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), an organic farmer, to exempt certain operations from the food-safety bill.

Specifically, Sen. Tester wants to exempt from produce safety standards those farms whose annual value of sales directly to consumers, hotels, restaurants or institutions exceeds the annual value of sales of food products to all other buyers.

His amendment would exempt small, local processing facilities from hazard analysis provisions if the average annual adjusted gross income of such facility for the previous three-year period was less than $500,000. Small processors would be exempt from the recordkeeping requirements if the adjusted gross income for the previous year was less than $500,000.

But the United Fresh Produce Association said that adopting two standards is not the way to bolster confidence in the food supply.

"We appreciate the hurdles growers of different sizes will face in meeting a uniform food-safety standard," said Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for United Fresh. "At the end of the day, we need to bolster consumer confidence."

Two standards can generate confusion, and Congress would miss an opportunity to boost confidence in the food supply, Mr. Gilmer said. Food-safety bills in the House and Senate are expected to direct the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to develop standards for safe produce on the farm and in packinghouses, and the agency has already begun drafting the regulations.

"It's a huge undertaking," Mike Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the FDA, said at an April 14 session of the Food Safety Summit in Washington.

The agency has been touring produce operations and learning about the diversity of the industry, Mr. Taylor said. Food-safety standards must be risk-based, enforceable, take into account the scale of various operations and be flexible enough to respond to emerging science, he said. "We still have a lot more to learn."