The debate over whether the pending Senate food safety legislation would have a disparate impact on small and mid-sized farmers has been reignited as it’s rumored the upper chamber might consider the bill sometime soon.
The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510), which would increase the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) authority and mandate to regulate the food supply, has been stalled behind health care reform since being unanimously voted out of committee in mid-November.
According to aides on the Hill and consumer lobbyists, Senate leadership may schedule the bill for a vote sometime in March.
Though S. 510 is considered “ready to go” by most–those working on the bill say it has simply been waiting for room in the schedule–there is still widespread concern in the small and sustainable agriculture communities about how the bill may adversely impact burgeoning local food systems.
“In its zeal to protect consumer health, Congress could instead stifle a healthy shift in diet to more fresh and local foods,” the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) said to its constituents in an action alert earlier this month.
Groups like NSAC and the National Organic Coalition are rallying their members to lobby for a series of amendments to prevent what they believe would be onerous and burdensome regulations.
“While we all cheer this Administration’s emerging emphasis on local and regional food production, let’s not forget that the Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) now on its way to the Senate floor could erect a formidable barrier to those markets for many small and moderate sized farms,” said the NSAC.
Though the sustainable agriculture community has won a number of key changes to the bill, the coalition said in its recent action alert that S. 510 still has certain “deficiencies,” which “threaten to undermine good conservation and biodiversity practices, retard the development of stronger local and regional food systems, and bar access to markets for small and mid-sized farms.
The group is advocating for amendments to roll back traceability requirements for food that is directly marketed from farmers to consumers and exempt farms with small and moderate gross sales from new federal regulation.
They are also pushing hard for Senator Debbie Stabenow’s (D-MI) bill, the Growing Safe Food Act, to be added as an amendment to create a technical assistance and food safety training grant program to help small farmers.
According to NSAC spokeswoman Aimee Witteman, staff on the Hill have been receptive to their concerns. Witteman said that there is shared “genuine concern” about the issues raised by the coalition.
Should small farmers be worried about provisions in S. 510?
“Everyone should have the opportunity to be heard,” said Sandra Eskin, director of the food safety campaign with The Pew Charitable Trusts, a key member of the Make Our Food Safe Coalition (MOFS). MOFS is a broad coalition of consumer, public health, and industry groups pushing for the passage of the pending Senate food safety bill.
As Eskin sees it, the FDA has made it clear it is aware of small and sustainable ag concerns.
were made in committee that clearly direct FDA to consider small,
sustainable agriculture in the on-farm rulemaking process,” said Eskin.
“[The bill] is not the end of the discussion. It’s the beginning.”
Carol Tucker-Foreman, a food policy fellow at Consumer Federation of America, which is also a member of MOFS, agrees.
“Supporters of local and organic food should be substantially reassured that the new food safety legislation working its way through Congress does not place an inordinate burden on small and organic growers,” Tucker-Foreman recently wrote in an Op-Ed, which pointed out that FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg has been vocal about creating scale-appropriate regulations.
“It will not be one size fits all,” said Hamburg in an address to a produce industry group in the Fall. “They will be scaled for risk, and they will reflect the needs and concerns of the community.”
“If consumers and small farmers can agree on the need for Congress to give FDA the power and resources and responsibility for preventing foodborne illness, including developing scale-appropriate regulations, we could be strong allies in assuring that that gets into the final legislation and agency rules,” said Tucker-Foreman.
According to Eskin, most members of the coalition are completely behind the Stabenow language. “I hope it gets adopted,” she said.
On the other amendments sought by NSAC, outlined in their recent constituent update, Eskin is less certain where members of the coalition fall. “We don’t have the language of the amendments, so it’s hard to judge.”
“We do have issues with anything that provides any blanket exemptions,” said Eskin. “Food should be safe regardless of its source — big processor, small farm, conventional operation or organic grower.”
“We can talk about scale-appropriate regulation, but not exemptions,” she said.
Eskin emphasized that many in the MOFS coalition were “sympathetic” to some of the concerns raised by NSAC.
For example, Eskin said she understood the worry over potentially costly traceability regulations, but noted that the legislation calls for the agency to take “baby steps,” with lots of room for input.
“I understand their concerns, but now is not the time to address them,” says Eskin, explaining that through pilot programs and the rulemaking process, there will be ample opportunity for small and mid-sized producers to influence the development of product-tracing systems.
When asked whether she worries small and
sustainable ag groups might sink the bill if they are unsuccessful with
their amendments, Eskin expressed cautious optimism.
have a critical mass and a broad coalition,” she says. “I really hope
that relatively minor issues don’t sink the bill.”
S. 510 enjoys bipartisan support in the Senate and is backed by a
broad coalition of interest groups, including big industry groups, like
the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), as well as consumer groups
like Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
Eskin says the coalition is committed to keeping
the bill’s broad coalition and bipartisan support intact.
“Our goal is to keep off any
controversial amendments so that we don’t endanger the bill,” says
Eskin. “Republicans get foodborne illness and so do Democrats.”
Witteman said it was too early in the process to know whether NSAC would still oppose the bill if certain amendments are not adopted.