Food & Water Watch, a Washington, DC-based advocacy group and active proponent of the pending food safety legislation announced its support for an amendment to exempt certain farmers and processors from elements of the bill this week, breaking ranks with the wider coalition of groups pushing for the measure.

“After the recent recall of half a billion eggs, it’s fair to ask when the Senate plans to deal with the food safety bill,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, in an email statement his week. “The Food Safety Modernization Act, S. 510, has been waiting for action since the House of Representatives passed its own food safety bill last year.”

farm3-featured.jpgWenonah goes on to argue two “critical components” should be added to the bill: an amendment to ease the burden on small farmers and processors who sell their products directly to consumers, and a requirement for increased inspection frequency of food processing plants.

The statement notes that the first component would be fulfilled by an amendment introduced by Senator Jon Tester (D-MT). Tester’s amendment, which is now co-sponsored by Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), has been a controversial sticking point in the debate over the bill. A variety of grassroots groups supporting small, sustainable, and organic modes of agriculture vehemently support the measure, which would exempt facilities with gross incomes of less than $500,000 from certain performance and recordkeeping requirement and exempt small producers that primarily sell directly to restaurants and consumers from new FDA performance requirements.

Key members of the Make Our Food Safe Coalition, the group of consumer and public health organizations campaigning for S. 510 have long maintained opposition to any blanket exemptions.

Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food & Water Watch, also expressed very strong reservations about Tester’s amendment to Food Safety News in April.

Corbo noted the measure 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.

Senate staff, sustainable agriculture advocates, and consumer groups have been working on the amendment language for months, but no updated version has been released.

On inspection frequency, Wautner said: “The bill calls for a five-year inspection frequency for high-risk food plants and a seven-year inspection frequency for lower risk food plants. In contrast, the bill passed by the House has a six to 12-month inspection frequency for high risk food plants, low-risk plants would be inspected every 18 months to three years, and food warehouses every five years.

“The Senate has been dragging on this process long enough. It’s time to pass this legislation so it can be conferenced with the House version to come up with the strongest bill possible to address the holes in FDA’s food safety net.”

The inspection frequency required by the Senate bill was lowered in the manager’s agreement–released last month–as part of an effort to bring down the Congressional Budget Office cost estimate for the bill, which is projected to cost $1.4 billion between 2011 and 2015.

“We are extremely disappointed that the Senate, in order to reduce the estimated cost of the legislation, reduced the frequency of FDA inspections of food processing facilities,” said Consumer Federation of America in response to the compromise. “Regular and frequent inspection is a basic part of prevention.”