An update on the pending food safety bill, with an outline of key amendments and  discussion on the proposed exemption for small farms

Several amendments aimed at lessening the impact on small farms will be adopted in the final version of the food safety bill headed for the Senate floor next week, a key sustainable agriculture group announced yesterday.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) reported that “several very important breakthroughs on important improvements” for its constituents will be included in the manager’s amendment, a package of changes agreed upon by both sides before floor debate.

The group has been working closely with Senate staff to address widespread concern in the small, organic, sustainable agriculture communities about the impact the pending FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) would have on the growing local food movement.

With key changes in the works, the group may be able to get behind the legislation, NSAC spokeswoman Aimee Witteman told Food Safety News. “Assuming there are no new surprises in the bill and once information is shared about the outcome of the negotiations over Senator Brown’s traceback provision [see below], we can support the bill as amended,” said Witteman in an email yesterday.

According to NSAC, the support for changes has “picked up speed in the past week” with a floor vote imminent. The group reported that the following changes have been agreed to (it’s important to note, the final language has not been worked out):

-The amendment sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) pertaining to farms that engage in value-added processing or that co-mingle product from several farms will be included in the final bill. It will provide the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with the 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. Included within the purview of the amendment are exemptions or flexibilities with respect to requirements within S. 510 for food safety preventative control plans, and FDA on-farm inspections.

-The amendments sponsored by Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) will also be included in the final bill.  These amendments, intended to reduce unnecessary paperwork and excess regulation, pertain to both the preventative control plan and the produce standards sections of the bill.  FDA will be instructed to provide flexibility for small processors including on-farm processing, minimize the burden of compliance with regulations, and minimize the number of different standards that apply to separate foods.  FDA will also be prohibited from requiring farms and other food facilities to hire consultants to write food safety plans or to identify, implement, certify, or audit those plans. With respect to produce standards, FDA will also be given the discretion to develop rules for categories of foods or for mixtures of foods rather than necessarily needing to have a separate rule for each specific commodity or to regulate specific crops if the real food safety issue involved mixtures only.

-The amendment sponsored by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) to provide for a USDA-delivered competitive grants program for food safety training for farmers, small processors and wholesalers will also be part of the final bill.  The training projects will prioritize small and mid-scale farms, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, and small food processors and wholesalers. In order to comport with the FDA-specific nature of the overall bill, the farmer training grant program will be provided via a memorandum of understanding between FDA and USDA, but will then be administered by USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture.  As is the case for all of the provisions in S. 510, funding for the bill and for this competitive grants program will happen through the annual agriculture appropriations bill process.

-The effort championed by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to strip the bill of wildlife-threatening enforcement against “animal encroachment” of farms will also be in the manager’s package.  It will require FDA to apply sound science to any requirements that might impact wildlife and wildlife habitat on farms.

Negotiations are ongoing over an amendment proposed by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to amend the traceability and recordkeeping section of the bill, according to NSAC’s update. “We hope to be able to report on the results of that discussion in the coming days,” the group said.

Strong disagreement over small farm exemptions

The most contentious amendment in consideration, proposed by Senator John Tester (D-MT), to exempt food facilities with under $500,000 gross sales from preventative control plan requirements, and traceback and recordkeeping provisions, will not be part of the manager’s amendment, but will be debated separately when the bill is brought to the floor.

Tester’s language has strong support within the sustainable ag community. In the past week alone, dozens of different action alerts were circulating the internet urging family farmers and supporters of the burgeoning local food movement to call their Senators on behalf of Tester’s amendment.

Roland McReynolds, executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association–a group that has actively organized to press North Carolina Senators to support changes to the bill–said Tester’s amendment is the “simplest solution for promoting a healthy, safe food supply.” But, many in the food safety community dispute the claim that locally grown, sustainable food is safer, and want to see new federal regulations apply to all producers, regardless of size.

“The concept that small, local, organic equals safe and that large, global, multinational is unsafe is wrong,” said David Acheson, former associate commissioner of foods at FDA, adding that he has seen no solid evidence that unconventionally-grown food is microbiologically safer. Acheson thinks Tester’s proposal goes too far. “It is asking for trouble…and it is not sound public health policy,” he said.

Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food & Water Watch, also expressed very strong reservations about the proposal, pointing out that, based on the 2007 Agriculture Census released by the USDA last year, nearly 95 percent of domestic farms would be exempt.

Corbo also noted the exemption could have unintended consequences on the safety of imported food. “If you exempt domestic farms that earn below $500,000 annual income from the bill’s provisions, you would also have to exempt any foreign farm below that income level as well–so cheap and unsafe imports could enter our food supply,” he said.

Many of the key groups in the Make Our Food Safe coalition, a campaign made up of consumer, public health, and industry groups pushing for the passage of a strong FDA food safety bill, chose not to comment on the changes until final language is agreed upon.

David Plunkett, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), who is familiar with the negotiations, indicated yesterday that Senate staff are continuing to work on a compromise. “Stakeholders have been briefed on the broad outlines of the agreements and it appears the offices negotiating the bill want to find good agreements that preserve the bill’s public health focus while addressing any legitimate concerns of small and sustainable agriculture,” he said.

Both the House and Senate version of the bill–the House passed a food

safety reform bill in July–give FDA mandatory recall authority, require more frequent inspections,

and ask food facilities to implement food safety plans.