Consumers Union, an active force behind the push for food safety reform in Congress, issued a statement on Friday to address concerns from the small and sustainable farming community over the pending food safety bill in the Senate.

Small farmers and sustainable agriculture advocates remain opposed to several components of the legislation moving through Congress to boost the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) role in regulating the food supply over concern that the bill could have a negative impact on small and mid-sized farmers.

Long-time food safety advocate Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, wrote the statement, which asked for cooperation between the sustainable community and consumer groups to further food safety reform.

Halloran acknowledged that sustainable agriculture concerns should be addressed before the Senate moves forward with the legislation. “We believe these concerns can be addressed, and that we can move forward with a bill that will create seriously needed reforms in how FDA regulates food,” said Halloran in the statement.

Local food advocate and blogger Jill Richardson of La Vida Locavore called the statement an “olive branch to sustainable foodies.”

FDA food safety reform has received widespread support from consumer and industry groups as well as garnered bipartisan support in both the House, where H.R. 2749 passed in July, and the Senate, where a similar bill, S. 510, is sitting in committee with little chance of advancing until after health care reform.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), an outspoken critic of the pending legislation, believes that any bill offering “one-size-fits-all” food safety solutions would not only harm small and mid-sized farms, but would also be “inappropriate and counterproductive” for remedying the federal food safety system.

Central to NSAC’s concern is that the pending FDA reform will likely affect farms and ranches by expanding the agency’s focus from primarily regulating processing, handling, and manufacturing of food products to also include regulating on-farm produce production and processing.

According to NSAC, small farmers worry that when mandatory on-farm regulations are created, they will be tailored largely to the needs of large-scale producers. 

“Family farmers and sustainable agriculture advocates are concerned that the new food safety standards and updated GAP [Good Agricultural Practices, voluntary government guidelines] may not be focused on the most risky activities in food production and processing and ultimately be to the detriment of family farmers and the environment,” according to the group’s policy brief.

Among the top sustainable agriculture concerns: inequitable fees (the House bill charges a $500 food processor registration fee regardless of size or output), on-farm requirements that could harm bio-diversity, cumbersome traceability rules, and potential overlap with organic food safety regulations.

With a long list of concerns, NSAC is working with consumer groups to find common ground on legislative language.

“With these important changes afoot, [Consumers Union] believes that FDA food safety reform legislation will not hamper the development of sustainable agriculture,” said Halloran, who made it clear her organization would help the sustainable agriculture community make changes to the Senate bill to ensure there is no conflict with organic standards or sustainable agriculture practices.