Food safety bill stumbles over small-farm exemption

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 1, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The future of a big food safety bill fell into doubt one day after the Senate approved it, as farm organizations began withdrawing their support and new technical hurdles arose.

The hurdles may be overcome shortly, and the bill itself still enjoys widespread political support. But, the newfound skepticism of major farm organizations and farm-area lawmakers marks a surprising turn for the reputation of an otherwise popular bill.

"The agriculture industry is very concerned," Rep. Dennis Cardoza said Wednesday.

Cardoza, a Democrat who represents California's farm-rich San Joaquin Valley, denounced as an "abomination" a Senate amendment that exempts certain small farms from the new food safety standards. That exemption sparked objections from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the California-based Western Growers Association and United Fresh, which represents fresh produce growers.

The Senate on Tuesday approved the food safety bill by a commanding 73-25 vote. Congressional leaders originally hoped the House could consider it Thursday.

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act is the first major rewrite of federal food safety in many years. If finally passed, it would become one of the last big actions of the Democratic-controlled 111th Congress. If it languishes, the legislation will return next year when Republicans control the House of Representatives.

The bill requires new Food and Drug Administration inspections of food facilities, tightens record-keeping requirements, authorizes the hiring of 17,800 new FDA inspectors and applies U.S. safety standards to foreign food suppliers, among other provisions.

The bill doesn't cover meat, poultry and egg operations, which are overseen by the Agriculture Department. Revising the Agriculture Department's food safety operations would have complicated the legislation.

"USDA has been doing a lot of things this bill requires for years," said Nancy Donley, the president of a food safety group called Safe Tables Our Priority.

But there's at least one important difference. Donley said the bill would give FDA the power to actually recall tainted food. The Agriculture Department lacks such power and instead relies on voluntary recalls to get contaminated food off the market.

"We hope this bill sets a precedent for recalls," Donley said.

The Senate bill also includes some exemptions for wine and liquor producers.

"Food safety is an important bill, and we will work to ensure its passage," Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday.

Like Cardoza, however, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said he's "disappointed and frustrated" by the small-farm exemption.

The final Senate bill included the amendment, authored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. It exempts farms with sales of less than $500,000 a year from the new food safety requirements if they sell most of their food directly to in-state consumers, or to consumers within a 275-mile radius of the farm.

"It protects the jobs of family farmers and ranchers and processors," Tester said during the Senate debate.

The farm-region lawmakers and agricultural groups, though, fear tainted food coming from one farm could cause a broader public health scare that chills the overall business. For instance, farmers vividly recall the decline in sales of leafy greens following the 2006 discovery of E. coli-contaminated spinach from California's Salinas Valley.

"A small farm can devastate the industry as easily as a big farm," Cardoza said.

An unrelated technical hurdle arose following Senate approval. The Senate bill includes a tax-related provision that subjects it to an objection from the House, where all tax provisions are supposed to arise first. With time short, this last-minute snag could be enough to stall the bill until next year.

House leaders, though, also have several parliamentary tools they could deploy. This could include sliding the food safety bill into another bill and handing it back to the Senate for one final vote.

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