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WASHINGTON — Food safety legislation jumped through a key hurdle Nov. 17 when the Senate voted to begin debating the once-stalled bill, but the fresh produce industry is still nervous about an amendment that could jeopardize its support for the bill.

By a 74-25 vote, the Senate approved a cloture measure allowing the body to debate the U.S. Food & Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act (S 510), a bill that passed a Senate committee nearly a year ago and the House in July 2009.

"Food safety has too often become a hit-or-miss gamble, with parents obliged to roll the dice when it comes to the safety of their kids' food. That is both frightening and unacceptable," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), who is leading the debate for Democrats on the Senate floor. “We also need to give FDA the resources and the authority it needs to cope with the growing, varied risks that threaten today’s more abundant and diverse food supply.”

Food manufacturers and consumer groups praised the Senate for jump- starting the stalled bill, but the United Fresh Produce Association, which has been working on food safety legislation for two years, is raising concerns that an amendment to exempt small producers from food-safety requirements could defy the intention of the bill.

“Supporters of this effort have portrayed these exemptions as protecting small businesses, that locally grown commodities are somehow safer or that federal government standards are not adequate,” said Robert Guenther, United Fresh’s senior vice president of public policy. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

He explained, “The fact remains that when a food-safety incident occurs, farmers, wholesalers, distributors and retailers — regardless of size — suffer significant economic hardships. Most importantly, the vast majority of businesses who suffer this economic hardship have nothing to do with any single food-safety incident.”

“The reputation of the industry is at stake,” added Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for United Fresh.

Besides the small-producer amendment offered by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), an amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to ban bisphenol A from children’s bottles and food packages could also derail the bill. Other amendments are possible, including a substitute amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), who may use the food safety bill to attach language banning earmark spending.

For the measure to pass during the lame-duck session, the Senate would need to pass its bill and the House would have to agree to a single version, which would be sent to President Obama for his signature. If not, Congress will start considering food safety legislation again in January 2011.