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House Clears Portion of Farm Bill with Provision Aimed at Delaying FSMA

The House took a new approach to passing the long-stalled farm bill on Thursday: it passed a version that included farm programs, but left off the nutrition section, which represents 80 percent of the bill’s price tag.

While much of the focus in Washington is on the political implications of splitting the farm bill into two, food safety advocates are concerned because the version that cleared the House could further delay implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act.

A little-known provision in the bill sponsored by Rep. Dan Benishek (R-MI) that was added to the farm bill last month would require the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to conduct a “scientific and economic analysis” of FSMA regulations before they can move forward, a requirement that could further delay regulations that are severely behind the deadlines set by Congress.

Benishek, who has tree fruit farmers in his Northern Michigan district, says he wants to make sure FDA is getting the rules right so it doesn’t hinder farmers. Apple, cherry, and other tree fruit growers have been among the most outspoken critics of proposed FSMA regulations for produce safety. The groups are particularly upset about new water testing requirements they view as onerous and unnecessary.

Sandra Eskin, director of the food safety campaign at the Pew Charitable Trusts, thinks Benishek’s amendment could “significantly delay” the rules FDA is working on.

“What this provision does is totally undermine the process we have for regulations in this country,” said Eskin, noting that FDA has published regulatory impact reports that include analysis on the costs and benefits of each proposed rule.

The bill specifically says FDA may not enforce any of the FSMA regulations until the analyses are published to the federal register, but some in the produce industry think that the requirement might not stall the rules if it becomes law because FDA is already focusing on the science and considering the economic impact.

Consumer advocates are hoping that Sens. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and others who were champions for the sweeping food safety law, will ensure the measure is stripped when the House and Senate reconcile their respective versions in conference.

Sen. Harkin took to Twitter Thursday afternoon and said the House had passed “a farm bill that nobody wants,” adding that it “would undermine critical food safety law” while foodborne illness continues to impact 1 in 6 Americans annually.

The farm program-only farm bill cleared the House 216 to 208 with no support from Democrats. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said leadership is in discussions about bringing the nutrition title, which deals with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to the floor “sometime in the near feature,” but the path forward for SNAP is not clear. The House version seeks $20 billion in cuts to nutrition assistance over the next 10 years — significantly more than the Senate’s $4 billion scale-back.

Senate Agriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) said the House’s first phase of the farm bill is “not a real Farm Bill and is an insult to rural America.” She pointed out that splitting the bill in two was “strongly opposed by more than 500 farm, food and conservation groups.”

“We will go to conference with the bipartisan, comprehensive Farm Bill that was passed in the Senate,” said Stabenow.

Frank Lucas (R-OK), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee — who had made it clear he thought splitting the bill was a bad idea — said the vote was “an important step toward enacting a five-year farm bill this year that gives our farmers and ranchers certainty.” Lucas said he would be continuing conversations with lawmakers in both chambers to find a path “that ultimately gets a farm bill to the President’s desk in the coming months.”

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