With the food safety bill slated to be taken up by the Senate in mid-November–after moving at a snail’s pace for a year–the chatter about the bill’s impact, especially on the burgeoning local food movement, is on the uptick.

The debate centers around an amendment proposed by Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and supported by Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) that would exempt small farmers and processors from preventive control plan requirements in the legislation, which most agree would be the most sweeping reform of the food safety system in several decades. The Tester amendment would apply to those earning less than $500,000 in annual sales that primarily direct market products to consumers, stores, or restaurants within the same state, or within 400 miles of the farm or processing facility.

Consumer and public health groups have been playing baseball with sustainable agriculture groups over the language of the Tester amendment, as the measure has a good chance of passing if brought to the Senate floor. Last week, the Make Our Food Safe coalition and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition sent emails to Senate offices with competing messages.

The Make Our Food Safe coalition–which includes the American Public Health Association, Consumers Union and victims of foodborne illness, among others–is concerned that Tester’s amendment could have unintended consequences and pose health risks. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition defends the amendment, saying it would improve food safety by creating “size-appropriate” alternatives to the preventative control requirements. See: Coalition Questions Tester’s Small-Farm Exemptions and NSAC Defends Small Farm Food Safety Exemptions.

Late last week, Make Our Food Safe reiterated concerns about the current version of the amendment, but also struck an understanding tone. The group sent another email to Senate staff: “The Make Our Food Safe coalition supports local and sustainable agriculture, understands that the Tester amendment is very important to NSAC, and respects the goals of the amendment. However, the amendment as drafted includes sweeping language that goes too far and would inadvertently undermine important public health protections in the legislation.”

In the email, Make Our Food Safe takes issue with a few of NSAC’s assertions, a few of which are excerpted here:

The MOFS coalition has proposed to limit the exemptions to low-risk foods, in order to ensure that foods most often linked to foodborne illness outbreaks, like leafy greens, are subject to safety standards. NSAC contends that “the food or commodity, in and of itself as a category, is not where the risk lies.”  To the contrary, whether the source of a pathogen is contaminated water, dirty facilities, or some other factor, people get sick when they eat the contaminated food.

The 400-mile radius criterion is not a wise choice for this safety legislation. NSAC supports an exemption from federal food safety requirements for “local” food, which the coalition defines as that being sold within 400 miles of a farmer or processor.  While it is true that this distance criterion was used in the Farm Bill, it was used in the context of a marketing program, not one based on safety.

The coalition also expressed concern that the 400-mile distance criterion could result in nearby foreign suppliers (such as Mexico) selling food not subject to U.S. safeguards to consumers in the United States.

– The Tester amendment provision adds two new categories of direct sales – direct sales to stores and restaurants – to an existing exemption intended only for sales to consumers at farmers markets and roadside farm stands.  This provision constitutes a major expansion of that exemption, not just a minor change.  When a sale is made directly to a consumer, there is a personal connection between the seller and the buyer, and such sales are necessarily quite limited in quantity and scope. However, if the class of buyers is substantially expanded to include retail stores and restaurants, the impact of any food safety problem could be much greater, affecting hundreds or thousands of far-flung store customers and restaurant patrons.

Food and Water Watch, which is part of the Make Our Food Safe coalition, has taken a different stance on the Tester amendment. The group’s executive director, Wenonah Hauter, said last month that two “critical components” should be added to the Senate 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. See: Group Breaks Ranks on Small Farm Exemptions.

Yesterday, Elanor Starmer, Food and Water Watch’s western regional director penned a op-ed: Can Congress make a food-safety omelet without breaking the wrong eggs?, for Grist in favor of the Tester provision. Starmer calls the Tester amendment a good addition to the bill.

“It’s important to remember that the vast majority of our food system is controlled by a few giant companies. That’s why one food safety mishap sends the whole country running for the toilet. We need regulations that can protect us against this kind of madness,” writes Starmer. “But we also need to make sure that if my neighbors want to sell to the local supermarket, they won’t be stymied by food safety requirements they can never meet.”

In her article, Starmer also debunks hysteric internet rumors, discusses the challenge in regulating what she calls “a polarized food system,” and says: “It’s high time — past high time — to do something about the dreadful state of our food safety system.”