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Small-producer advocates resist safety bills

By Wes Sander | Capital Press

Bills to bolster food safety are described as an easy sell in a contentious session of Congress. But while the companion House and Senate bills enjoy wide industry support, advocates of small-farm and localized agriculture have reservations.

Under the bills' proposals, small producers -- those known for selling their harvest directly through such avenues as farmers' markets and subscription services -- would shoulder a disproportionately greater burden than would a larger operation, producer groups say.

The bill would grant new powers to the Food and Drug Administration to impose preventive measures on food-production industries.

Currently, the agency has power only to respond to food-illness outbreaks. The bills would expand that power by allowing FDA to conduct food recalls, which are currently done voluntarily by industries.

But it would further require food-production facilities to develop a safety plan and keep records of safety practices. FDA could assess an industry fee to pay for the program, but small producers take issue with a proposal of an industry-wide flat fee. The House bill proposes a $500 fee for 2010.

Food safety has risen to the surface in Washington after a string of food-contamination episodes. Prominent among them was the E. coli outbreak of 2006, which was traced to leafy greens grown in California.

In March, a few days after Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., introduced his bill, President Barack Obama created his Food Safety Working Group, an advisory body. In June, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., introduced his bill in the House of Representatives.

"Something does need to be done about food safety, but we don't need to be giving USDA more power," said Gené Wall of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. "We pretty much disagree with most of it. It's a wide net. It's coming down with a heavy hand on small farms."

The ranchers' group R-CALF USA says the House bill should make a distinction between large and small operations, instead of imposing the same record-keeping requirements on all facilities. Such costs would be more difficult for a small operation to absorb, R-CALF says, while it's the larger operations that pose the greatest food-safety risks.

"The increased incidences of food safety problems is attributable to the increased industrialization of the entire food production system," R-CALF said in written comments.

The National Farmers Union says it has taken no position on the bills. But its affiliate, the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, took up the issue when its members pointed it out, said Rocky Mountain communications director Mick McAllister.

McAllister likewise took issue with the flat set of fees and requirements placed on facilities regardless of size. A beef operation of a few hundred head would qualify as small, he said; a large operation would have several hundred thousand to a million head.

"Frankly, I think the flat fee is an attempt to put the little guys out of business," he said. That's been the pattern with legislation for (years)."

Staff writer Wes Sander is based in Sacramento. E-mail: [email protected] .

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