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United Fresh: Food Safety Advance ‘Bittersweet’

With the food safety bill’s passage in the House Wednesday, it appears that small farm and producer exemptions, which were added in the Senate, will be a part of the final bill.  While, local, sustainable agriculture advocates praised the inclusion of the language, known as the Tester-Hagan amendment, the biggest players in the produce industry expressed regret about the provision.

“[T]he Tester amendment inserted into the Senate bill, and now passed by the House, weakens public health protection by exempting some producers and processors based only on the size of their business, their geographic location, or to whom they sell their products,” said Robert Guenther, vice president for public policy at the United Fresh Produce Association in a statement Thursday. “The statutory enactment of non science-based exemptions would limit FDA’s ability to assure consumers that all foods they purchase, whether at grocery stores, restaurants, farm markets, or elsewhere, have met the same food safety standards.

“We fear that this profound error will come back to haunt the Congress, public health agencies, consumers and even those who thought they would benefit from food safety exemptions,” added Guenther.  “Food safety must be a universal commitment, shared by all who would grow, process and sell foods.”

In his response to the bill’s advance in the House, Guenther said that while the food safety bill “will do much good” it is “highly regrettable that House leadership failed to exercise its responsibility to engage the Senate in conference.”

Lawmakers discussed the lack of conference on the floor Wednesday.  Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), Ranking Member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which unanimously approved a version of food safety legislation in 2009, voted against the bill and slammed Democrats for attaching the measure to a large spending bill and for not taking the time to compromises on the differences between the House and Senate versions.

“We could have a conference–we could have a bipartisan, bicameral bill,” said Barton, explaining that there would be another week or two before Congress adjourns.  “I regretfully oppose this … this is not the bill that came out of the House.”

Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), who has served as chairman of the committee in past Congresses, blamed the Senate–which took well over a year to follow the House’s action on the bill–for the short time frame.

“For all of us who have worked long and hard to pass food safety reform, this is a bittersweet moment, with a job only partially done,” said Guenther. “As we look ahead, we will continue to voice our strong support for uniform, risk-based food safety standards, whether in the remaining days of this Congress, or in the new Congress convening in January.”

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, an interest group that has been critical in the negotiations over the Tester-Hagan amendment, said last week it was “disturbed” by the statements by “agribusiness” opposing the Senate version of the food safety bill.

“The produce industry trade groups are of course entitled to their position and entitled to try to stop the food safety bill in its tracks,” said Ferd Hoefner, NSAC Policy Director.

“But we think such an effort is seriously misguided,” added Hoefner.  “Family farm and sustainable agriculture groups applaud the Senate for moving away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach.  Rather than backing rigid, one-size-fits-all regulation of the type favored by industry to squeeze out family farmers, the Senate improved the original bill through a series of carefully crafted and balanced amendments to ensure improved food safety without creating unnecessary barriers to farm profitability, good land stewardship, or enhanced access to local, fresh, healthy food.”

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