The Senate made substantial progress on the pending Food Safety Bill Wednesday. To move the sweeping food bill forward, the upper chamber voted 74-25 to limit debate, circumventing Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) objection. And key stakeholders resolved the two controversial issues that have plagued the bill: bisphenol A and small farm exemptions.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) amendment–which originally aimed to ban the chemical bisphenol A, or BPA, in all food containers, but had since been scaled back to only containers meant for infants and small children–officially kicked the can.
“Unfortunately, the compromise agreement on a BPA amendment to the food safety bill has been blocked,” announced Feinstein on the floor of the Senate. Feinstein said she and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) had, after months of negotiation, finally reached a compromise that would have banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups and required the FDA to issue a revised safety assessment on BPA by Dec. 1, 2012.
That compromise was shut down by the leading chemical industry group, according to Feinstein. “Unfortunately it has become clear that the American Chemistry Council (ACC) has blocked and obstructed the agreement from being added to the Food Safety Bill currently on the floor.”
“I regret that the ACC puts the sale of chemicals above the safety of infants and children,” she added. “The chemical lobby came in at the 11th hour opposing this ban.”
The ACC has maintained it should be up to the Food and Drug Administration, not Congress, to rule on BPA safety.
The Tester-Hagan Amendment, on the other hand, remains a real possibility. The amendment, introduced by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) and supported by Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), would exempt farms and food producers that either fit the FDA’s definition of “very small business,” sell most of their products directly to consumers, restaurants, or retailers within state lines or within 400 miles that have annual sales of less than half a million dollars.
Late last night, consumer groups and sustainable agriculture advocates, who have been at odds over the amendment’s language for months, reached a compromise that could be adopted into the manager’s package. Though the details are not yet public, the agreement is rumored to reduce the distance threshold and allow the FDA the ability to withdraw an exemption if a farm or facility is linked to a foodborne illness outbreak.
“We are happy with the outline of the final deal on the Tester-Hagan amendment,” Ferd Hoefner policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition told Food Safety News, adding that specifics of the deal were embargoed.
“It is not exactly what we wanted, but it is something we can live with and get behind. We support its inclusion in the Manager’s amendment, and with its inclusion support passage of the Manager’s amendment and final passage. We congratulate the bill’s sponsors and the amendment’s sponsors for their dedication to reaching an agreement that is good for family farmers, good for healthy food consumers, and good for food safety.”
Tester, a farmer himself, told reporters yesterday that he will fight tooth and nail for the provision, believing that small-scale local producers are not presenting large-scale food risks.
“What this amendment is simply there to do–it isn’t to give anybody a loophole they can drive a truck through, it’s to give them a loophole they can walk through with a wheelbarrow full of locally grown farm-processed food,” he said.
For Tester, the measure is as much about food safety as it is about the direction of American agriculture.
“If we were to pass this bill without this amendment you’re going to see more concentration in agriculture,” he told reporters. “You’re going to see less choices for the consumer and bigger industrialized agriculture in the country. I don’t think that’s positive, I don’t think it creates jobs, I don’t think its good for the economy and I don’t think it’s good for our food system.”
It remains unclear whether the major food and agriculture industry groups, who have recently grown louder in their opposition to any blanket exemptions, will find the deal amenable.
Yesterday, Robert Guenther, vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association– which signed a letter opposing the Tester amendment sent to Senate staff Monday–reiterated industry opposition to exempting sectors based on “geographic location, size of operation and to whom they sell their food products.”
“The fact remains that when a food safety incident occurs, farmers, wholesalers, distributors and retailers, regardless of size, suffer significant economic hardships,” said Guenther. “Most importantly, the vast majority of businesses who suffer this economic hardship have nothing to do with any single food safety incident. In addition, small and local food operations have been associated with a number of food safety incidents and recalls over the last decade and are not immune based on size of operation, distance of geography or commodity.”
The Senate is set to debate the food safety bill at 9:30 a.m EST Thursday, likely through late afternoon.