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Food safety bill could nip local food movement in the bud

Agriculture.com Staff 11/20/2009 @ 2:37pm

Tired of partisan gridlock in Washington?

There's nothing partisan about food safety. This week the Senate's Health Education Labor and Pensions committee -- the same one immersed in the contentious health care battle -- unanimously approved the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.

The committee's chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) hopes for a quick vote on the Senate floor and its top Republican, Mike Enzi (R-WY) says "we all want the safest food supply possible."

The House has already passed a food safety bill. The Senate's version also gives the FDA more power to inspect and regulate anyone who processes or packs fruits, vegetables and other non-meat foods. (The USDA, not FDA, handles meat inspection.)

After deaths from e-coli-contaminated spinach and salmonella-laced peanut butter, few are openly opposing the legislation.

But the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition worries that the growing local food movement will be crushed by the food safety steam roller driven by politicians anxious to get ahead of food scares.

"It creates a major new barrier to the evolution of local food systems," says the group's Washington lobbyist, Ferd Hoefner. "Ultimately, depending on how far FDA takes their authority, it could start reversing it."

FDA estimates that about 30,000 farmers, mainly large produce packers in states like California and Texas, would be affected. The law applies to produce processors, but it doesn't exempt small farms. Hoefner's group worries that small producers who wash and package produce to deliver to restaurants, for example, will be swept into the regulatory net. Hoefner says hundreds of thousands of farms might be affected.

"Every maple syrup producer in New England is going to have to write a HACCP plan," Hoefner says.

Meat packing plants already have to have those Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plans to prevent contamination. (How well that works is another story.)

Most small farm operators aren't going to have the expertise to do that, so they'll have to hire someone, as well as pay for auditing. The House bill imposes a $500 per producer fee on everyone to pay for an FDA inspection, which might happen as often as every 4 years. The Senate doesn't. Harkin doesn't like industry-funded inspections, arguing that FDA inspectors should clearly be working for the public.

All that could cost producers several thousand dollars a year, Hoefner says. It's hard to say exactly how much, since the final law hasn’t been drafted and FDA regulations are further away.

Farmers who sell to farmers markets won't be affected by the Senate version of the bill. Or if you sell more than half of the value of the crop directly to consumers, you're exempt. But if you sell more than half to restaurants, grocery stores or schools, you're affected. And if several farmers pool their products to deliver to those buyers, they’re not protected by the 50% exemption, either.

In Washington, nearly every interest group makes dire predictions when it's trying to influence a bill. But Hoefner's concerns are supported by agricultural history. Tougher meat inspection laws in the late 1960s ended much on-farm production of air-cured country hams in the Southeast. More recently, tougher standards for sprouts consolidated that business into a few hands.

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