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
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
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."