Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Tester Offers Hope on S. 510, Help for Small Farms

Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) says he expects the Senate to approve his amendment aimed at lessening the impact of the pending food safety bill on small-scale food producers. While the fate and immediate timeline for the legislation remains highly uncertain, Tester's office released an updated version of his amendment late last week.

"While I agree that we need to have better regulations for these multistate, huge corporations that take food off fields, throw it all together and distribute it to many states, I think the state and local entities can do a much better job (regulating) the people who are direct-marketing food," Sen. Tester, a third-generation farmer, told reporters during a visit to PEAS Farm in Missoula, Montana Friday.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and other groups continue to lobby for the Tester amendment, which would exempt certain food facilities and farms with under $500,000 in gross annual sales from preventative control plan requirements and exempt direct-market farmers from the coming produce safety regulations. The measure, co-sponsored by Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), has been the subject of intense negotiations, but was ultimately not included in the final manager's package for the bill.

Carol Tucker-Foreman, a fellow at the Consumer Federation of America's Food Polity Institute, told Food Safety News in August that she was surprised some of Tester's language wasn't included.  Tucker-Foreman believes at least portions of the amendment will ultimately be added to the Senate bill.

"People don't want to hurt small farmers and farmers markets, but they also don't want to keep getting sick," said Tucker-Foreman in an interview with Food Safety News after the manager's amendment was released.  "If you put aside the rants, the language of the bill will be there. They are really taking the middle course here."

If the Tester amendment is added, NSAC says it will support the Senate bill.  "However, we strongly oppose the companion House measure, and stand ready to defend the Senate bill in conference with the House should that prove necessary," the group said in a statement.

The latest version of Tester's amendment was released Friday, the measure still charges local and state food safety and health agencies to oversee small-scale producers. According to his office, the measure would apply to producers that:

-Have annual sales of less than $500,000, and sell the majority of their product directly to consumers, restaurants and retailers within the same state--or within 400 miles, or that

-Fall within the Food and Drug Administration's category of "very small business"

Tester addressed reporters along with Josh Slotnick, who operates PEAS Farm.  Slotnick said his farm lacks the resources to meet the would-be requirements in the food safety bill, stressing the need for Tester's amendment.

According to a release from Tester's office, Paul Hubbard, a consumer advocate with the Community Food Agriculture Coalition, also strongly supports Tester's amendment.

"Jon understands that a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach to food safety just won't work," Hubbard said.  "We appreciate his work to boost food safety in a common sense way that will keep small family farms and ranches in business for future generations."

"The folks with me here today know firsthand that foodborne illnesses don't come from family agriculture," said Tester.  "As we do the vital work to make sure the food on our kitchen tables is safe, we've also got to make sure we don't treat small producers the same way we treat big corporate farms.  That's exactly what my amendment will fix."

Tester's amendment is supported by more than 150 local, state, and national food organizations, including NSAC.  Consumer and industry groups in Washington, DC argue that the amendment would leave large loopholes in a food safety bill they've been fighting for over a year.

The unanimous consent agreement offered by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) last week would allow Tester to bring his amendment to the floor during debate. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) remains opposed to the UC proposal, creating a roadblock for the bill unless Reid decides to take the time to invoke cloture.

Tester offered a hint of optimism for the legislation, which has been pronounced dead by several media outlets.

"He's showed some leanings toward pulling his hold on the bill this last week, so we're hopeful that will happen soon at this point," said Tester.  

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