Click here to see our previous report on the food safety bill, which appeared in the Nov. 25 paper.
WOOSTER, Ohio — The Food Safety Modernization Act — designed to increase and combine regulatory powers of the Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Department of Homeland Security and the Food and Drug Administration — got the nod it needed earlier this week from the Senate.
The Senate voted 73-25, sending the legislation onto to the House for review, with provisions that exempt certain small farmers and local markets.
Known as the “Tester Amendment” — after Senator Jon Tester, D-Mont. — it provides producer exclusions and alternatives based on the size of operation, geographic location and customer base.
For example, producers can be exempt if they are defined as a “very small business” according to the Food and Drug Administration, or if sales for the previous three years were less than $500,000 and if sales were within a 275-mile radius.
Tester told the senate, “Undue regulation on them (local producers) would simply stop a movement in this country that has gone on since this country’s inception. … I don’t want to diminish their ability to do this.”
Excluding small farms, or at least providing them an “alternative,” as one source calls it, has won the satisfaction of organizations that represent small and local operations.
“The senate did a good job taking into account the concerns of sustainable and organic farmers,” said Fred Hoefner, policy director for National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, in a statement. “While not a perfect bill from our perspective, we believe it contains important directives to the Food and Drug Administration to develop rules and guidance to improve food safety without resorting to ‘one-size-fits-all’ regulations that create barriers to emerging local and regional food and agricultural systems.”
It was the fear of “one size fits all” that concerned other sustainable organizations, like the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, which feared the accomplishments of the local foods movement could be jeopardized if the amendment were not included.
Carol Goland, executive director of OEFFA, said she thinks the bill is a positive move, and more so now that it includes alternatives for small producers.
“We were glad to see the inclusion of the Tester Amendment,” she said. “I think this is good for consumers as well — to make sure that the food supply is safer but is being done in a way that isn’t going to stamp out all the work that’s been done.”
Ohio Produce Growers & Marketers Association CEO Michael Geary said he’s pleased the bill recognizes the “scalability” of operations.
“It appears that it acknowledges the different sizes of the farms and the different growing methods,” he said, adding that he hopes the exemption will allow small producers to use more suitable regulations, like the multi-tier Ohio Fresh Produce Marketing Agreement.
But some organizations, like United Fresh Produce Association, fear exemptions amount to “loopholes” in the food supply, that could jeopardize the effectiveness of the bill.
“We are disappointed that the senate continues to ignore the egregious loopholes allowed in this legislation that will erode consumer confidence in our nation’s food safety system,” said Robert Guenther, United Fresh spokesperson. “Now, when going to a supermarket, restaurant, farmers market or roadside stand, consumers will be faced with the question of whether the fruits and vegetables offered for sale adhere to basic food safety standards or not.”
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association also opposed the bill, saying the senate “should have passed legislation to set appropriate standards for all products in the marketplace, no matter the size of the producing entity.”
The NCBA argued that the legislation weakens food safety, as amended, because “food safety knows no size.”
The bill is more than 60 pages. Here are a few of the major points:
Allows the Secretary of Health and Human Services increased authority to inspect food records, including parties who manufacture, process, pack, distribute, receive, hold or import foods.
Authorizes the secretary to suspend registration of a food facility if the facility manufactured, processed, packed, or held food by a facility that has a reasonable probability of causing serious health consequences or death.
Requires owners and operators of food facilities to evaluate hazards that could effect food, implement and monitor preventive controls and keep records.
Directs the secretary to review and evaluate health data to determine the most significant foodborne contaminants and issue contaminant-specific and science-based guidance documents.
Directs the secretary to assess and collect fees related to food facility reinspection, food recalls, the voluntary qualified importer program and importer reinspection.
(Reporter Chris Kick can be reached at 330-403-9477, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)