Though the recently-released Senate food safety bill didn’t include a controversial bisphenol-A ban or an amendment by Jon Tester (D-MT) to exempt small producers from certain measures, the package did include several amendments aimed at easing the regulatory burden on small-scale farms and food facilities.

The manager’s package for the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510), released by a bipartisan group of Senators late last week, is the result of “a long and arduous set of negotiations,” according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the group leading the effort to tailor the legislation to prevent unintended harm to the burgeoning sustainable, local, small-scale food movement.

farmer-tomatoes-featured.jpg“Most sustainable agriculture and family farm groups think the Senate bill is a very significant improvement over the companion bill passed by the House of Representatives (HR 2749) last year,” said the coalition in response to the latest version of the legislation. “We’ve been able to help make substantial improvements in the Senate bill through the [Committee] markup and in changes that will be adopted as part of the manager’s amendment when the bill comes to the Senate floor.” 

According to the group, the new draft includes the following favorable changes for small-scale, sustainable agriculture:

-The amendment sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) pertaining to farms that engage in value-added processing or that co-mingle product from several farms. 

It will provide the Food and Drug Administration 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) to reduce unnecessary paperwork and excess regulation. 

The Bennet language pertains to both the preventative control plan and the produce standards sections of the bill.  FDA is instructed to provide flexibility for small processors including on-farm processing, to minimize the burden of compliance with regulations, and to 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. 

The training projects will prioritize small and mid-scale farms, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, and small food processors and wholesalers.  The program will 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 amendment championed by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to strip the bill of wildlife-threatening enforcement against “animal encroachment” of farms.

It will require FDA to apply sound science to any requirements that might impact wildlife and wildlife habitat on farms.

-An amendment proposed by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to amend the traceability and recordkeeping section of the bill that will exempt food that is direct marketed from farmers to consumers or to grocery stores and exempt food that has labeling that preserves the identity of the farm that produced the food. 

The amendment also prevents FDA from requiring any farm from needing to keep records beyond the first point of sale when the product leaves the farm, except in the case of farms that co-mingle product from multiple farms, in which case they must also keep records one step back as well as one step forward.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and other groups continue to push for the inclusion of the Tester amendment, which would exempt certain food facilities with under $500,000 in gross annual sales from preventative control plan requirements and exempt direct-market farmers from the coming produce safety regulations. The measure, co-sponsored by Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), has been the subject of intense negotiations, but was ultimately not included in the final manager’s package.

Carol Tucker-Foreman, a fellow at the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Polity Institute, said last Thursday she was surprised that Tester’s amendment wasn’t included. She believes portions of the language will ultimately be added to the Senate bill.

“People don’t want to hurt small farmers and farmers markets, but they also don’t want to keep getting sick,” said Tucker-Foreman in an interview with Food Safety News. “If you put aside the rants, the language of the bill will be there. They are really taking the middle course here.”

If the Tester amendment is added, NSAC says they will support the Senate bill. “However, we strongly oppose the companion House measure, and stand ready to defend the Senate bill in conference with the House should that prove necessary,” the group said in a statement.
Senate staff are also circulating a document, the S. 510 – FDA Food Safety Modernization Act Small Farm and Small Business Guide, which highlights a series of points addressing concerns over burdensome one-size-fits-all regulations.

With the bipartisan package ready to go, many food safety advocates, industry experts, and Hill staff believe the bill could come to a vote in September when the Senate reconvenes. 

See recent Food Safety News coverage of the Senate food safety bill:

Senate Strikes Bipartisan Agreement on Food Safety August 13, 2010

Schlosser Urges Senate to Act on S.510 July 27, 2010 

An Update on the Senate Food Safety Bill July 14, 2010

Obama Nudges Senate on Food Safety Reform July 8, 2010