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Food Safety Bill Closely Watched By Farm Bureau
BY Mateusz Perkowski Capital Press
HR875 would split FDA, increase inspections on farms; Organic Farmers Concerned
Conventional agriculture groups are taking a wait-and-see approach toward a congressional food safety bill that has raised alarm in the organic community.
House Resolution 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, introduced in the House last month by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn, would divide the current Food and Drug Administration into two agencies - one to oversee food safety and the other to oversee the medical field.
Provisions in the bill would also increase regulations for farmers, who would be subject to inspections, agricultural practice standards and record-keeping requirements overseen by the new Food Safety Administration.
"The expansion of federal oversight is a concern for us," said Kelli Ludlum, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Realistically, though, the level of scrutiny described in the bill would be tremendously expensive and unlikely to be implemented, said Ludlum.
Even now, food safety authorities aren't able to fully exert their regulatory power, she said.
"FDA believes it has a wide amount of authority over governing farm practices today, but they just don't have the resources to go do things," said Ludlum.
The Farm Bureau has not taken an official position on the bill, particularly since separating the "redheaded stepchild" of food-safety oversight away from the overall FDA could be advantageous, she said.
"That's not necessarily a bad idea in and of itself," said Ludlum.
Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy at the United Fresh Produce Association, agreed that the idea of a standalone Food Safety Administration could be positive.
"Food should be a stronger focus. Right now, drugs seem to be dictating a lot of the focus," said Guenther.
The association, which represents growers, packers and others in the fruit and vegetable industry, also is not taking a position on the bill, but the group is troubled by provisions related to farm oversight, he said.
"We're not going to inspect our way to safer food," said Guenther.
Federal authorities should not cover the entire farm industry with one regulatory "blanket," since foods face varying degrees of danger from contamination, he said.
In the produce industry, for example, melons, leafy greens, tomatoes, sprouts and herbs have been responsible for 80 percent of the food-borne illness outbreaks in recent years, he said.
"We're supportive of commodity-specific standards based on risk and good science. Every commodity's risk profile is different," Guenther said. "It needs to be based on risk, not a one-size-fits-all approach. That's where this bill is potentially headed."
Aside from regulating farms and orchards as "food production facilities," the bill would also apply to ranches.
The bill calls for "monitoring and surveillance" of livestock as well as crops, and would set minimum standards "related to the animal's health, feed and environment which bear on the safety of food for human consumption."
Bethany Shively, spokesperson for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said the group is still reviewing the legislation.
"We're trying to figure out exactly how it applies to our industry," she said.
The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America believes the U.S. food-safety system is in need of fixing, but sees the proposed legislation as going too far, said Bill Bullard, the group's CEO.
"They're trying to address this in a shotgun approach," said Bullard. "We need to focus instead on areas most prone to food-safety breaches, and that isn't farms and ranches."
R-CALF will try to persuade members of Congress to redirect their attention to the true sources of the problem, such as packing plants and border inspections, instead of burdening ranchers with onerous new requirements, said Bullard.
This bill and other pieces of legislation are still a long way from becoming final and restructuring the U.S. food-safety system, said Ludlum of the Farm Bureau.
"This is certainly not the beginning or end of the discussion," she said. "It's part of the mix, which is how we're viewing it."
Staff writer Mateusz Perkowski is based in Salem, Ore. E-mail: [email protected]
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