New Food Safety Bill Passes Senate: Amendments Support Smallest Farms

The U.S. Senate passed the Food Safety and Modernization Act (S. 510) on November 30th, 2010, the most sweeping overhaul of food safety regulations of the century, spurred by food-borne illness outbreaks during the past decade.

If it becomes law, the Food & Drug Administration’s power and oversight of food and farm production would increase nationally and overseas, where an increasing percentage of American food is grown or processed. U.S. growers, processors, and sellers will be required to institute new food safety regimes as well as intensive record-keeping and tracking of produce and products.

The 73-25 vote had large bipartisan support. The House passed its own food safety bill, HR 2749, in 2009. That version did not distinguish between large and small growers and treated produce processors (for example, bagged salad producers) and whole produce sellers, such as apple farms, the same. But the bill’s future is already uncertain. On Dec. 2, 2009, opponents said the bill is unconstitutional because it contains provisions for fees and taxes on food safety violators that are supposed to originate from the House. This means the bill will need to be modified and voted on again in the Senate before it can even begin a reconciliation conference between the House and Senate versions. Supporters had hoped the House would adopt the Senate bill and then send it to President Obama to sign in to law before the holiday recess. If it dies, the next Congress would have to take on the food safety issue from scratch.

Sustainable agriculture farmers have been wary of the bill.

“FDA oversight of farms growing fruits and vegetables could require a significant new level of paperwork and administrative burden for farmers,” Judith Redmond, a principal of Fully Belly Farm in Capay Valley, CA, told the Almanac. “While some of the regulations will be common-sense and basic, they do not address what many believe are the root causes of food safety problems: co-mingling of products from many different farms during processing; conditions that are stressful and unhealthy for animals resulting in increased levels of pathogens in their manure; the long shelf-life that the industry has insisted on for their bagged processed greens; and our corner-cutting mentality about food that treats it like a cheap commodity.”

Small and sustainable farm owners worked hard with representatives from California, Colorado, Vermont, Michigan, Ohio, Montana, and North Carolina to include amendments in the Senate bill that would address some of their concerns.

“As a result of grassroots mobilization and much negotiation this bill now provides scale-appropriate food safety rules for small farms and mid-sized farms and local processors that sell to restaurants, food coops [sic], groceries, wholesalers and at farm stands and farmers markets,” wrote the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in a press release after the bill’s passage.  Included in the final Senate bill are six amendments that NSAC worked on:

  • “Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) providing FDA authority to either exempt farms engaged in low or no risk processing or co-mingling activities from new regulatory requirements or to modify particular regulatory requirements for such farming operations.
  • Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) to reduce unnecessary paperwork and excess regulation required under the preventative control plan and the produce standards sections of the bill, including instructions to FDA to minimize the number of different standards that apply to separate foods, to make requirements scale appropriate, and to prohibit FDA from requiring farms and other food facilities to hire outside consultants to write food safety plans.
  • Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) to provide for a USDA-delivered competitive grants program for food safety training for farmers, small processors, and wholesalers, with a priority on small and mid-scale farms.
  • Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to strip the bill of wildlife-threatening enforcement against “animal encroachment” of farms and require FDA to apply sound science to any requirements that might impact wildlife and wildlife habitat.
  • Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to exempt farmers from extensive and expensive traceability and recordkeeping   requirements   if they sell food directly to consumers or to grocery stores, to allow labeling that preserves the identity of the farm through to the consumer to satisfy traceability requirements, and to in most cases limit farm recordkeeping to the first point of sale when the product leaves the farm.
  • Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Kay Hagan (D-NC) to give very small farms and food processing facilities as well as direct-market farms who sell locally the option of complying with state regulation or with modified, scale-appropriate federal regulation.”

The exemptions for small farms have infuriated large processors who claim all food growers should be required to uphold the same food safety standards. Many large scale produce trade groups such as the Produce Marketing Association and the United Egg Producers, withdrew their support for the Senate bill after the amendments were included.

Small farm advocates say that produce processing (intensive washing, cutting, packaging, and shipping) done by large growers creates additional avenues of contamination not present for farmers selling single commodities such as whole apples, citrus, and the like.

“There are almost no documented cases of people being hospitalized or dying from fresh whole produce. Most of the cases associated with produce are processed products, such as unpasteurized apple juice or salsa,” the Community Alliance with Family Farmers wrote in its policy statement on food safety. “A series of cases of serious illness associated with leafy green vegetables are documented by the government to be from fresh-cut greens in sealed plastic bags.”

At least 5,000 people die each year in the U.S. from food-borne illness, another 325,000 are hospitalized, and about 76 million people become sick from eating tainted food, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Noted food author Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) called the senate legislation “by no means perfect. But it promises to achieve several important food safety objectives, greatly benefiting consumers without harming small farmers or local food producers,” they wrote in a Nov. 29, 2010, opinion piece in the New York Times. “By one estimate, the kinds of farms that the bill would exempt represent less than 1 percent of the food marketplace. Does the food industry really want to sabotage an effort to ensure the safety of 99 percent of that marketplace because it is so deeply concerned about under-regulation of 1 percent? The largest outbreaks are routinely caused by the largest processors, not by small producers selling their goods at farmers’ markets.”

– Pia Hinckle

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