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Brasher: Food-safety bill meets objections from groups

Article from The Des Moines Register

By Philip Brasher

Washington, D.C. - An effort to improve the safety of fruits, vegetables and processed foods is running into objections from a broad collection of farm interests, including livestock producers, organic farmers and small-scale growers.

A bill approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee in June would give the Food and Drug Administration more authority over the 80 percent of the food supply the agency is responsible for regulating.

The food administration, which regulates most foods except for meat and poultry, would be required to set safety standards for fruit and vegetable farms and inspect food processors more frequently. The legislation also levies a new $500 fee on all processing facilities to pay for the increased regulation.

But farm groups are raising an array of objections to the bill, and they've gotten a positive reception from some of the same Democrats who have set up roadblocks to the party's initiatives on health care and climate change.

Groups take exception

Among the concerns:

- The bill would allow the food administration to quarantine regions where disease problems are found.

- There's no exemption from the fees for small farms that do their own processing, such as packaging cheese or juice.

- The FDA is required to set up a traceability program for farms and processors so foods and ingredients can be tracked from farm to plate. There is an exemption for farms that sell directly to consumers.

- Livestock producers fear the FDA will restrict the use of manure for fertilizer and that inspectors will go on their farms.

- The organic industry is concerned that the FDA could set safety standards for farms that organic growers will have trouble meeting. One of the concerns:

Organic farms often raise livestock as well as fruits, vegetables and other crops. Some industry-driven, food-safety standards require livestock to be kept away from fruit and vegetable fields to avoid contamination from manure.

Farmers speak out

Kent Peppler, a farmer speaking for the National Farmers Union, a group with close ties to congressional Democrats and the Obama administration, told the House Agriculture Committee that "placing unnecessary, onerous, costly and burdensome regulations on farmers will not produce the results we all need on this issue."

Nicholas Maravell, an organic farmer who processes turkeys and chickens, grinds grain and packs eggs on his Maryland farm, told the panel the legislation would add unnecessary costs and paperwork. He would have to pay the $500 fee.

"Smaller operators are being asked to disproportionately pay for the monitoring of larger operations," Maravell said.

Chairman negotiates

The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson, D-Minn., has been negotiating some possible changes to the bill before the full House votes on it, just as he successfully did earlier with the climate bill. This time, Peterson wants to ensure that FDA inspectors can't go onto grain and livestock farms.

The National Pork Producers Council said FDA inspectors investigating problems with a farm's grain could start checking the operation's hog barns as well and demand to see the pork operation's records.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a group that pushes the interests of small-scale farms, is seeking an exemption from the $500 fee for on-farm processing operations and wants to restrict the standards that the food administration can set for farms. The Organic Trade Association, which represents companies as large as Smucker National Foods of California to Frontier Natural Foods Cooperative in Norway, Ia., is seeking some similar limits on the FDA's rule-making.

Consumer advocates, meanwhile, want to keep the bill from being diluted before it goes to the Senate, where farm groups have more clout.

Nancy Donley, who became a food-safety activist after her son died from E. coli poisoning in 1993, said the House committee has already done a lot to address the concerns of organic agriculture and small farms. For example, the $500 fee was originally $1,000.

Donley, who is president of Safe Tables Our Priority, said he feels a sense of urgency in passing the bill before another election, because of the large Democratic majorities now in both the House and Senate.

"If it's not going to happen now, I don't think it's ever going to happen," she said.


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