SALEM, Ohio — After a cumbersome series of events in the House and Senate, the Food Safety Modernization Act finally is on its way to the president’s desk.
The act is the first major food safety overhaul in seven decades, and will increase and combine regulatory powers of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration, Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The House approved the bill on Dec. 21 by a vote of 215 to 144. Similar legislation had been approved by the Senate in late November, but required a separate act by the House, due to some language issues pertaining to taxation.
To rectify the matter, the House approved its own legislation on Dec. 8 as a continuing resolution, with the food safety act attached.
The somewhat cumbersome process advances a bill many trade and producer organizations have long supported.
But controversy over exemptions for small and local producers still has some organizations calling for reform.
United Fresh Produce Association is among a host of organizations arguing “food safety knows no size,” meaning a foodborne illness could originate from a small, local business, just as it could a larger organization.
“We remain fearful this profound error will come back to haunt Congress, public health agencies, and even those who thought they would benefit from food safety exemptions,” said Robert Guenther, United Fresh’s vice president of public policy, in a released statement.
Guenther and his organization have continued to make statements throughout the legislative process, saying the bill “will do much” as an historical overhaul of the food safety system, but not enough, because it leaves exemptions.
But the bill is well received by organizations like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which has pushed for the exemption as a “scale-appropriate” measure.
“We regard passage of this bill as a great accomplishment, as it will help promote food safety with scale-appropriate standards,” the organization said in a statement.
The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association — a major organic certifier in the state, describes the “exemption” more as an “alternative.”
Although the bill may not put small and local growers under the same constraints as larger producers, they still will be required to follow their state, and scale-appropriate federal food safety regulations.
Some states, like Ohio and Pennsylvania, are in the process of forming their own food safety standards, which a producer can adopt.
In Ohio, the biggest effort has been the Ohio Fresh Produce Marketing Agreement — a project of the Ohio Produce Growers and Markerters Association to provide food safety requirements based on the size of operation.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the bill will ensure food safety remains “a top priority.”
“The Food Safety bill will provide the federal government with improved tools to prevent foodborne illness and address challenges in the food safety system by promoting a prevention-oriented approach,” he said in a statement to media.