Coalition of small producers seeks two-track system

By DAVE WILKINS

Capital Press

Food-safety reform has cleared another hurdle in Congress despite opposition from small-scale and organic food groups who favor a two-track system that classifies them as lower-risk.

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act was approved by the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Nov. 18. The measure is expected to come to the full Senate for a vote sometime early next year.

The House passed its own version, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, in July.

Recalls in recent years of spinach, peanut butter and other food products are behind the push for a more rigorous food-safety system.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., would expand the authority of the Food and Drug Administration by increasing the frequency of inspections at all food facilities and giving the agency greater access to records and testing results.

It would also give the FDA the authority to issue food recalls if companies failed to act on their own.

The bill has received support from some ag groups, but many small, local producers say the added expense of record keeping and testing could drive them out of business.

In a letter to committee chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said the bill would have "unintended negative impacts" on family farms, organic producers and emerging local and regional food systems.

Coalition members have proposed instead a two-track system based on the size and type of a farm's production.

Under the coalition's proposal, farms whose three-year average annual production is less than $1 million and that aren't involved in "high-risk processing activities" wouldn't be subject to the same regulations as operations that are involved in high-risk processing.

Members of the coalition said they're committed to supplying consumers with nutritious, wholesome food.

"The best way to achieve that goal is to concentrate enforcement on high-risk activities and concentrate on education and food-safety training for farmers whose size, product type or marketing plan do not pose significant risk," they told Harkin in the letter.

Members of the coalition include Oregon Tilth, California Farmers Union and the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network.

The United Fresh Produce Association is generally supportive of the bill. The group is opposed to any efforts that would exempt small or organic farms from new food-safety regulations.

When it comes to food safety, farms should be treated the same, regardless of size, said John Keeling, executive vice president of the National Potato Council, a member of the produce association.

In the unfortunate event of a foodborne illness outbreak, it's not just the producer of the food who suffers, it's everyone in the sector, Keeling said.

"If a producer, large or small, makes a mistake, the whole industry suffers," he said.

Keeling gave the Senate bill high marks for being commodity specific and risk-based.

Potatoes rate fairly low on the risk scale, he said. Unlike fresh produce, spuds are usually cooked at sufficiently high temperatures to kill any pathogens before they are eaten.

That doesn't mean potatoes should be exempted from food safety regulations, but it does mean that government regulations should take the lower risk level into account, Keeling said.

"You're not going to regulate alfalfa sprouts in the same way that you regulate potatoes," he said. "They have different risk factors and different consumption patterns."

Online

Search for Food Safety Modernization Act on the Library of Congress Web site: http://thomas.loc.gov

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