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While long-awaited food safety reform legislation cleared a major hurdle on Nov. 17 when the Senate overwhelmingly voted 74-to-25 to consider and bring to a vote the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510), a curve ball thrown into the mix in the form of a last-minute amendment delayed the would-be legislation -- that appeared poised for fast-track passage in the lame duck session -- for further debate until Nov. 29.
The late-hour amendment, added to the bill by Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.), exempts smaller processors or farmers with sales less than $500,000, or facilities that sell half of its food to retailers, restaurants or consumers in the same state or within 275 miles, from some requirements of the legislation that was included in the final bill presented for debate.
The unexpected legislative curve ball prompted swift reaction from the produce industry’s leading trade associations -- the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and United Fresh Produce Association – which were forced to oppose the bill Tester’s amendment, which flies in the face of the trade groups’ fundamental position of equitable risk- and science-based food safety efforts across the board.
In a letter sent to PMA members last Thursday, Bryan Silbermann, president and CEO of the Newark, Del.-based trade group , said if the bill passes with the amendment, “Federal regulation would apply based on where the food is sold and how much it earns – neither of which are risk factors. Because it would require the Food and Drug Administration to regulate based on miles traveled or other factors irrelevant to safety, PMA must oppose the bill.”
Robert Guenther, SVP’s of public policy for United Fresh, concurred. We have also consistently stated that food safety policy must be based on risk and science, not speculation and ideology. Unfortunately, Senator Tester’s amendment would reject a risk-based approach to food safety, setting up a federal food safety system that adheres to arbitrary exemptions rather than to sound scientific principles.
Indeed, while both United Fresh and PMA have long been engaged in efforts to modernize food safety laws to protect public health and enhance consumer confidence, both groups are adamant, as well they should be, that food safety is not a large or small producer issue, but is instead an industry issue.
“Comments from Senator Tester and supporters are now making it abundantly clear that their cause is not to argue that small farms pose less risk, but to wage an ideological war against the vast majority of American farmers who devote their personal commitment to feeding 300 million Americans every day,” said Guenther, adding: “We are appalled at statements by Senator Tester reported in the Capital Press that ‘small producers are not raising a commodity, but are raising food. Industrial agriculture takes the people out of the equation.’ This is simply hogwash, and should insult not only the farmers of America, but the intelligence of members of Congress.”
While the consequences of inadequate food safety precautions “have no boundaries as to size of operation, geography, nor whether the product is sold at a farm stand or grocery store,” Guenther said it boils down to consumers’ “right to know that all food that they purchase has been produced, transported and offered for sale under the same food safety requirements. Supporters of this effort have portrayed these exemptions as protecting small businesses, that locally-grown commodities are somehow safer, or that federal government standards are not adequate. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
What’s more, the sad irony of Tester’s amendment, as Silbermann also pointed out, is that the small growers, processors and facilities that will otherwise be exempt in the bill will potentially be hurt the worst as a result of lost market opportunities and weakened consumer protection because many products will not be subject to the new safety rules.
Backed by the support of 18 other produce organizations, both trade groups are urging the Senate to strip Tester’s amendment from the bill. “Pathogens don’t discriminate based on region, crop, farm size, market distance or anything else,” explained Silbermann. “Public health and consumer confidence hinge on a strong food safety system that includes federal legislation and regulation in addition to industry’s impressive efforts. We’ll continue to advocate for smart governance that provides practical, effective solutions that will help our members succeed in the marketplace and build consumer confidence and demand for our products.”
Aside from PMA and United Fresh, other organizations opposing Sen. Tester’s amendment include:
American Mushroom Institute
Fresh Produce Association of the Americas
National Potato Council
National Watermelon Association
U.S. Apple Association
California Citrus Mutual
California Strawberry Commission
California Grape and Tree Fruit League
Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association
Florida Tomato Exchange
Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association
Idaho Grower-Shipper Associations
Idaho Potato Commission
New York Apple Association
Northwest Horticultural Council
Texas Produce Association
Washington State Potato Commission