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Food Safety Legislation to U.S. Senate for VotePrint

Food & Farming | April 21, 2010 | By Patty Cantrell

Calling everyone interested in local foods! Please direct your attention to Washington D.C. this week and next.

A major package of food safety legislation is coming to a vote very soon on the floor of the U.S. Senate. It will have significant ramifications for farms you buy from at farmers markets, through Community Supported Agriculture arrangements, and for local farms selling to grocery stores, restaurants, and schools.

The most urgent item is to let senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow know what you think about some particular local farm-related choices (see below) still to be made in the Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510). Give them acall or email today.

The Issue
Deadly nationwide food contamination incidents have prompted Congress to take much-needed steps to protect public health. Pathogens can quickly spread far and wide now that it’s common for one produce packing plant, for example, to pump out 25 million servings of salad per week.

But in trying to tackle this problem, Congress has come up with one-size-fits-all rules that could squash the little local farms that are growing underneath the big industrial food industry as an alternative for consumers.  Food safety concerns with the anonymous national and global food supply are among many issues driving families, schools, and others to buy directly from local producers, or at stores and restaurants that feature local foods.

Yet the compliance costs and paperwork burdens coming soon from Congress are designed for businesses with whole legal departments, not the family providing healthy food for sale to neighbors. There’s no guarantee the local spinach at a farmers market or on a restaurant’s menu is absolutely safe. But the odds are astronomically high that it is because of many accountability factors (small batches, personal and business reputation, sustainable practices, etc.). Any safety problems also cannot go very far, and are relatively easy to trace, in the much shorter local food supply chain.

The good news is that many in Congress, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture get this. In the months since we first reported on the food safety law-making, local food and sustainable agriculture advocates have had some success getting improvements for small and mid-scale farms in the House and Senate bills.

Improvements in the Senate bill include:

  • A provision that gives FDA flexibility to exempt farms that engage in no- and low-risk processing, such as bagging lettuce for sale at farmers markets (Sen. Sanders, D-VT).
  • Paperwork reduction flexibility for FDA regarding smaller farms (Sen. Bennet, D-CO).
  • A program, sponsored by Michigan’s Sen. Stabenow, for providing technical assistance to smaller farms in the coming new world of food safety regulations.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is a leading group, in partnership with many others, which worked the halls of Congress for everyone trying to get across local food and sustainable agriculture points. NSAC is the place to go for informed and ongoing blog updates on this and related items.

Choices Yet to Make
When S-510 goes to the floor in the next week or so for a final vote, Senators will also vote on additional provisions not already included in the big legislative package.

Amendments to watch are from Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Senator John Tester (D-MT), which would take extra steps to prevent regulators from putting requirements designed for very large, long-distance operations onto much smaller, local-market producers.  Again we’re talking about farms that sell directly to local buyers or that keep their name and operation connected to their product (farm identity-preserved products that do not commingle ingredients from elsewhere).

We support two amendments to S-510 from Sen. Tester that would 1) make traceability recordkeeping more reasonable for such farms and 2) exempt farms that primarily sell directly to farmers markets and local customers like restaurants. The details of a potential amendment from Sen. Sherrod are still in negotiation. But again, stay tuned to the NSAC blog for more on these and any other amendments.

Here’s the key piece to communicate to Michigan senators Levin and Stabenow, regarding any and all amendments that pop up: We need to:

  1. Maintain or secure exemptions for direct farmer-to-consumer sales (including direct to stores, restaurants, etc.) and for farm identity-preserved sales in general.
  2. Limit farmer recordkeeping to the point of first sale. Currently in the bill, farms are supposed to track their products beyond that first sale and could be held accountable for problems beyond their control, such as kids with colds contaminating produce on shelves at grocery stores.

Don’t forget also to thank Sen. Stabenow for her efforts to provide important technical assistance to smaller farm and food businesses (one of the improvements noted above).

Next Steps
After the floor vote on S-510, the legislation will go to a conference committee that will try to meld the final Senate bill with an earlier House version.

Get yourself acquainted today with this important issue so you can also weigh in at this conference committee time. A few minutes today will also help you have an informed voice later, in the rule-making process, when regulators decide exactly how they will enforce the new law.

I know it’s long and convoluted, but think of it as an exercise in local food democracy. Chew on these issues and speak your mind! We’ll keep you posted, too.