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Industry protests Tester language in food safety bill

by Joan Murphy | November 23, 2010
WASHINGTON — The produce industry is pulling support for a food-safety bill slated for a Nov. 29 vote after news that a compromise had been reached allowing certain small producers to be exempted from the federal food-safety requirements.

The Senate failed to vote on food-safety legislation Nov. 18, but an agreement was reached to vote on the bill Nov. 29 once lawmakers return from the Thanksgiving holiday break. The vote on S. 510 is expected to be held Monday, Nov. 29, in the evening.

During last-minute negotiations, lawmakers agreed to compromise language in the bill, offered by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), that would exempt certain small producers from the food-safety requirements.

Under Sen. Tester's measure, food producers that sell their goods directly to consumers and have less than $500,000 in annual sales would remain under control of state and local agencies but not be subject to federal requirements.

The compromise measure rolled into S. 510 gives the U.S. Food & Drug Administration the authority to withdraw exemption from a farm or facility that has been associated with a foodborne illness outbreak. It also changes the definition of local producers from businesses that sell to retailers, restaurants or consumers within 400 miles to those that sell in the same state or within 275 miles.

"[Family-scale producers] are small," Sen. Tester said in a Nov. 18 statement in which he praised Senate leaders for including his amendment in the latest version of the bill.

"They raise food; they don't raise a commodity as happens when these operations get bigger and bigger. And there is a direct customer relationship with that customer or that farmer that means a lot. And if a mistake is made, which rarely happens, it doesn't impact hundreds of thousands of people. We know exactly where the problem was. And we know exactly how to fix it."

News that the Senate struck a compromise on the Tester language prompted groups to pull support for S. 510.

"To an industry that is dedicated to continuously improving on-farm food- safety practices, inclusion of exemptions from food-safety laws is a huge step backward and will send the wrong message to the food industry, but most importantly to the American consumer," Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of the Western Growers Association, said in a Nov. 19 statement.

Twenty produce organizations sent a letter to Senate leaders in a final effort to convince lawmakers to abandon the Tester compromise. "Comments from Senator Tester and supporters are now making it abundantly clear that their cause is not to argue that small farms pose less risk, but to wage an ideological war against the vast majority of American farmers that seeks to feed 300 million Americans," they wrote in the letter. "If this language is included in the bill, we will be forced to oppose final passage of the bill."

The produce industry is also awaiting a House vote on the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization, which may come when lawmakers return from the break. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act may come up for a vote Dec. 1 or Dec. 2. If it does not pass, Congress will need to take it up again in January.

Stabenow named chairman of Ag Committee A powerful friend to the produce industry, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) was named the new chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, a position left vacant after Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) lost her re-election bid. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), who was in line to take the post, instead opted to continue as chair of the Senate Budget Committee.

"During her time in Congress, Senator Stabenow has been a great friend of the produce industry and a leader on many agriculture issues," United Fresh Produce Association President and CEO Tom Stenzel said in a Nov. 19 statement. "As chairman, she will also bring a strong sense of cooperation and bipartisanship to this position, a critical quality during the upcoming debate on the farm bill."

Sen. Stabenow has advocated for fruit and vegetable growers in Michigan and supported legislation that would incorporate the Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Snack Program into schools nationwide.

"Senator Stabenow's ability to fight for farmers with genuine bipartisan support was critical to the passage of the historic 2008 farm bill, which was the first to recognize specialty crops, including apples," said U.S. Apple Chairman Julia Rothwell.

"She is respected for her thoughtful, balanced approach to some of the most controversial and complex issues impacting our industry today including energy policy, environmental regulation and the imperative of ensuring a safe and abundant supply of healthy food to U.S. consumers," Mr. Nassif said. "Western Growers looks forward to working with Chairman Stabenow and her colleagues on the Senate Agriculture Committee in the 112th Congress."