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Published September 28, 2010, 10:15 AM

Reps of small farms lobby for exemptions to broader FDA regulations

WASHINGTON — The food safety bill that fruit and vegetable growers pushed after outbreaks of foodborne disease from spinach and jalapeno peppers reduced consumer confidence but small farmers found worrisome is in trouble.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — The food safety bill that fruit and vegetable growers pushed after outbreaks of foodborne disease from spinach and jalapeno peppers reduced consumer confidence but small farmers found worrisome is in trouble.

The United Fresh Produce Association and other groups initially thought tougher regulation on domestic and foreign production would restore consumer confidence, but Robert Guenther, a lobbyist for United Fresh, told Agweek on Sept. 22 the group favors a bill to give increased powers to the Food and Drug Administration only if it is based on “science and risk.”

Groups representing small and organic farmers and those that sell locally have been negotiating with congressional leaders for those farmers to be exempted from some of the requirements, but Guenther said any exemptions should be based on science rather than size of farm or to whom they sell.

United Fresh did not participate in a Sept. 20 press conference when lobbyists for other food industry and consumer groups backing the food safety bill to urged the Senate to take up the bill before the recess. The groups did not offer any proposals to address the problems that have kept the bill off the Senate floor.

An FDA food safety bill has passed the House, but an effort by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to bring the bill up quickly faltered when Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he would insist on a full debate because he was concerned about costs of the bill. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., also wants to exempt small, organic and local producers from some requirements and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wants a floor vote on an amendment to ban bisphenol-A, a common plastic additive in baby products.

“The groups represented here don’t always agree about food and nutrition policy. We have joined forces today because we do agree that the burden of foodborne illness in the U.S. is far too great,” Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America said at the press conference as she stood with representatives of Grocery Manufacturers Association, American Frozen Food Institute, Food Marketing Institute, National Association of Manufacturers, Center for Science in the Public Interest and Pew Charitable Trust.

Expanded role

FDA is responsible for food safety for most nonmeat foods, but under laws passed in the 1930s, rarely inspects plants and usually addresses problems after outbreaks of foodborne illness occur. The bill would give FDA increased regulatory authority over domestic and foreign food producers and require food producers to file detailed reports with FDA. A companion bill has passed the House, but there are substantial differences in the bills.

Foreman said the Senate bill “changes the FDA’s food safety paradigm. It shifts the agency’s mandate from reaction to prevention.”

Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest also called for the bill’s passage, saying “FDA acts like little more than a fire department, rushing in to inspect a food processor after the outbreak has already occurred. This protects neither consumers nor the food industries involved.”

Industry groups have backed the bill to restore consumer confidence that has been weakened by outbreaks of food borne illness caused by tainted spinach, imported jalapeno peppers and eggs, all of which are supposed to be inspected by FDA.

The National Association of Manufacturers usually opposes increased regulation, but favors the bill, saying it will provide “certainty” to both the industry and consumers and because “the benefits outweigh the costs,” said Rosario Palmieri, NAM vice president for infrastructure and regulatory policy.

But when asked about the changes Coburn, Tester and Feinstein want to make in the bill, Scott Faber, GMA’s vice president for federal affairs, said the groups did not want to address whether they would support the bill if those changes were made.

Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said in an interview that he thinks compromise language on Tester’s amendment had been worked out, but a spokeswoman for Tester said that “compromise language is still being crafted.” The Tester spokeswoman said it is still unclear whether Tester’s amendment to allow states, cities and counties to continue regulating producers who sell a majority of their product directly to consumers, restaurants or retailers in the same state or within 400 miles, and with annual sales no more than $500,000 would be included in the manager’s amendment or if Tester will have to offer it as an amendment.

Corey Henry of the American Frozen Food Institute said if the Feinstein BPA amendment is added, the frozen food producers would have to reassess their support for the bill.

If the Senate passes the bill, it will face hurdles in conference with the House. The House bill does not provide exemptions for small, organic and local farmers and includes fees on producers to pay for increased inspections.

Hoefner said if small farmers don’t get the exemptions and increased benefits such as training included in the Senate bill, they will oppose passage of a conference report.