Produce processing players watch closely as S501 food safety bill goes back to the Senate

The Produce Marketing Association and other players in the produce processing industry expressed strong opinions when the House of Representatives passed the Senate’s revised version of the food safety bill last week by a vote of 212-206. While smaller agriculture advocates praised the new senate provision exempting farms and food facilities based on smaller incomes and market reach, larger produce processing companies and organizations expressed concerns.

The story began in July of last year when the House passed a more sweeping version of the bill, which gave the FDA broader authority for records access, high risk facility inspections, and flat facility fees. Though several Democrats voiced their preference for the more sweeping House version of the bill, President Obama appealed to Congress to act quickly. “I urge the House–which has previously passed legislation demonstrating its strong commitment to making our food supply safer–to act quickly on this critical bill,” said Obama.

The bill must now be re-approved by the Senate due to a revenue-raising provision that, according the constitution, should have originated in the House, but was also part of the Senate revision.

In a November 18 letter to Produce Marketing Association members, PMA president & CEO Bryan Silbermann expressed the organization’s opposition to the revised version of S501:

“Unfortunately, we must now oppose S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act, because recent changes to the bill are not in keeping with our fundamental position of risk- and science-based food safety efforts. An amendment that was added to the bill by Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.) on the eve of the now-ongoing Senate debate exempts processors or farmers who meet certain criteria unrelated to risk. For example, it would exempt a food facility or farm if it has sales of $500,000 or less, or sells half of its food to retailers, restaurants, or consumers in the same state or within 275 miles. If this were enacted, 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 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate based on miles traveled or other factors irrelevant to safety, PMA must oppose the bill. I recently wrote in the Washington, D.C., publication The Hill that food safety is not a large or small producer issue. The sad irony is that the amendment that exempts these small facilities will hurt small growers and processors — in the end causing them to lose market opportunities. What retailer or restaurant will buy unregulated food when regulated products are readily available?

We strongly urge the Senate to strip this provision from the bill or, failing that, to reject the bill. Should it pass, it is essential that this be dealt with in a conference with the House of Representatives, which passed a different bill more than a year ago. 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.”

Produce processing companies continue to watch closely, as the Senate is expected to vote in the next few days.

Wynn Ponder is a freelance writer who covers industrial, science and health care topics. He is also owner of Wichita video production and marketing firm Ponder:Connect.