The Senate today approved a cloture motion for the long-awaited FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, or S. 510.  The cloture vote, which eliminates the threat of filibuster by limiting debate, is a key step forward for the beleaguered bill. 

Late last night staffers worked to iron out language and try to broker deals on the Tester and bisphenol A amendments.  Both have become controversial speed bumps for the slow-moving bipartisan bill, which among other things would give the FDA more authority in testing for food pathogens, tracing outbreaks, ordering recalls and penalizing companies that sell contaminated food.

The Tester provision, introduced by Jon Tester (D-MT) and supported by Kay Hagan (D-NC) aims to exempt small farmers and producers from major food safety regulation.  The BPA amendment is Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) attempt to place federal limits on the use of the chemical in food and beverage containers.  It focuses especially on products used by infants and small children.

Interest groups on all sides of the legislation and the amendments are working diligently behind the scenes.

Food Democracy Now!, an Iowa-based sustainable agriculture advocacy organization, told Food Safety News that more than 2,000 of its members have made phone calls on behalf of the Tester amendment.

“This is an important test to see if Democrats and Republican senators representing farm states will stand up for small farmers or cave to special interests and agribusiness,” said Dave Murphy, founder and executive director of the organization.  “It could be the first lesson the food movement gets on how the new Congress will respond during the 2012 Farm Bill.”

“The behind-the-scenes efforts to kill any provisions that protect family farmers from burdensome regulations has been intense, but efforts by real farm groups and sustainable ag organizations may have turned the tide,” added Murphy.

As Food Safety News reported yesterday, large food and agriculture interest groups, including the American Meat Institute, the United Fresh Produce Association, and the United Egg Producers, sent a letter to committee staff Monday asking that the Tester amendment be excluded from the bill.

Popular authors and food policy gurus, Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, issued a joint statement Tuesday, through Tester’s office, stating their support of the senator’s amendment and the food safety legislation. 

“S 510 is the most important food safety legislation in a generation,” they said. “The Tester amendment will make it even more effective, strengthening food safety rules while protecting small farmers and producers.  We both think this is the right thing to do.”

Sen. Tester has said in the past that he believes he has ample support for his amendment, but with the late-in-the game lobbying the outlook is less certain.

The BPA amendment is also in flux.  Ami Gadhia, policy counsel for Consumers Union, who has been working on the issue, said he remains optimistic that in the final stretch an agreement will be reached.   

“[Senator Feinstein] has tried really hard to meet industry halfway,” said Gadhia. “We’re still hopeful.”