After a long day of debating–and waiting–Thursday, the Senate was at impasse over the details and politics surrounding the food safety bill.

Though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said earlier this week he would, if necessary, keep the Senate in town over the weekend to finish the bill, sources on the Hill said it was more likely the legislation would not move forward until after Thanksgiving recess, which begins Monday.

The bill’s most outspoken opponent, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), has created an unrelated political sticking point by trying to force a vote on an amendment to ban all earmark spending through 2013.

A staffer close to the agreement told CIDRAP yesterday, “We’re at an impasse over Coburn’s earmark provision–we’re unable to reach a time agreement on the bill as a result of Coburn’s earmark threat and without a time agreement this whole process has reached a standstill.  It’s unclear if or when this will be dealt with, and if or when the bill will proceed toward passage.”

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, a prevention-focused bill that would boost the FDA’s inspection mandate, give it mandatory recall authority, and require food facilities to put food safety plans in place, is the first overhaul of the federal food safety regulatory system in over seven decades.  It has maintained wide bipartisan support in the Senate and the House, where a version of the bill approved in July 2009.  The measure passed a key procedural hurdle on Wednesday, but also drew the ire of big agriculture groups unhappy over a recent deal to include small farm exemptions.

In a statement yesterday, the United Fresh Produce Association said it was working with its produce-industry allies to build opposition to Montana Senator Jon Tester’s amendment, which it described as “exempting small farms and business operations from basic federal food safety requirements.”

“[W]e have also consistently stated that food safety policy must be based on risk and science, not speculation and ideology,” said Robert Guenther, United Fresh vice president of public policy.  “Unfortunately, Senator Tester’s amendment would reject a risk-based approach to food safety, setting up a federal food safety system that adheres to arbitrary exemptions rather than to sound scientific principles.”

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, one of the key groups negotiating for the inclusion of the amendment by Tester (D-MT) and Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) to reduce the regulatory burden on small farmers and producers, was very pleased that a compromise was included in the manager’s package late Wednesday.

“While not perfect, the final version of the amendment is something our farmer members can support,” said Ferd Hoefner, NSAC Policy Director. “We congratulate the bill and amendment sponsors on forging a deal,” said Hoefner.  “With the inclusion of this amendment and the earlier inclusion of several other critical family farm amendments, we can now urge the Senate to pass the manager’s amendment and the bill and to do it yet this week.”

“We are encouraging Senators to ignore Big Ag’s bluster and to get on with the important business at hand – passing the amendment and the bill to improve food safety,” said Hoefner.

The so-called “bluster” is now coming from some of the biggest names in produce.

Twenty groups, including the Produce Marketing Association and several regional industry groups, sent a letter to Senate leadership and Sens. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Mike Enzie (R-WY), chairman and ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which has been working tirelessly on the bill.

“As organizations representing the vast majority of fresh produce grown and consumed in this country–from small, medium and large-sized farms–the Tester amendment utterly fails to protect consumers by including blanket exemptions from the rest of the bill’s strong safety net, without regard to risk,” reads the letter.

“Comments from Senator Tester and supporters are now making it abundantly clear that their cause is not to argue that small farms pose less risk, but to wage an ideological war against the vast majority of American farmers that seeks to feed 300 million Americans.  We are appalled at statements by Senator Tester reported today in the Capital Press that ‘Small producers are not raising a commodity, but are raising food. Industrial agriculture, he said, takes the people out of the equation.’ “

If the Senate can pass bipartisan food safety legislation, the House will agree to the most recent version of the bill, Sen. Harkin said on the floor yesterday. “If we pass it with bipartisan support, the House will take and pass it and send it right to the president,” he said.

The Senate may resume debate on the bill today, but the timing going forward remains uncertain. (UPDATE: The Senate will not resume debate on the legislation until 6:30 p.m. EST November 29. See the Des Moines Register blog for a detailed look at the procedural hurdles ahead).