Updated 11:10 am

It’s nail-biting time for locavores and small farmers — or “family-scale farmers,” as the new terms seems to be. The Senate is in recess before voting on the Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) in just a few hours, and it is still up in the air whether the Tester-Hagan amendment, which would adjust how the FDA treats certain small farms and processors, will be included in the Manager’s amendment package or will face a vote on its own. This just in: The amendment will be included in the Manager’s amendment, the package of amendments agreed to by both sides in advance. This is great news.

Last night, consumer groups crossed the aisle to join forces with the sustainable agriculture camp, agreeing to some compromises in the language of the Tester amendment (PDF of the revisions here).

  • The FDA gains the authority to withdraw its exemption from a farm or facility that has been associated with a food-borne illness outbreak
  • The radius a facility or farm can sell direct within and still be eligible to be a “qualified end-user” has been reduced from 400 miles to 275 miles
  • Language has been added clarifying that farmers market sales are “direct-to-consumer” for FDA’s purposes

The 30 industry groups such as the United Fresh Produce Association and the American Meat Institute that wrote a letter opposing the amendment were not part of the compromise, so it’s by no means a slam-dunk. Even if S. 510 passes today with the amendment intact, it will still have to be reconciled with the House version. And with the Republicans now controlling the House, the industry opposition may carry more weight.

“We are encouraging Senators to ignore Big Ag’s bluster and to get on with the important business at hand — passing the amendment and the bill to improve food safety,” said Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, in a statement.

In Grist’s Food Fight discussion of S. 510, Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumer Union (publisher of Consumer Reports), had singled out the 400-mile radius as being of great concern:

With a 400-mile exemption, facilities in Mexico claiming to be doing under $500,000 a year in business (and who will check up on that?) and who have a certificate saying they are in compliance with applicable Mexican law (will this be hard to get?), could ship to the entire Los Angeles area.

At the same time, facilities from Maine to Ohio to North Carolina could ship and sell to New York City. USDA may believe that 400 miles is local, but no East Coast consumer I know would agree. A smaller mileage number could, however, actually allow the kind of personal relationship at a farmers market, grocery store or restaurant, that might be some insurance against getting food from a farm or processor who is willing to cut corners or might be careless.

The 400-mile distance comes from the 2008 Farm Bill, which defines local-food enterprises as selling within that radius.

The National Sustainable Agrioculture Coalition “would have preferred consistency between USDA and FDA definitions, but was willing to compromise for the sake of helping to move the bill forward,” said Hoefner.

The compromise language comes as a disappointment to some Western and Midwestern farming groups. “In the low-population states of the Midwest and Great Plains, it’s not unreasonable to think direct marketed food could move more than 275 miles. It’s 400 miles just across Nebraska.,” Brian Depew, Assistant Director of the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs. “The online farmer-to-consumer food coops in the Midwest, like Nebraska Food could easily move food more than 275 miles, though it is all within the state and is a promising direct marketing model for producers not located near urban areas.”

Both the amendment’s sponsors, Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), gave short but strong speeches this morning before the Senate in support of the amendment.

Tester focused on the importance of protecting the growing local-foods movement. “We deal with consolidation in our energy sector … in our banking sector, and we have consolidation in our food industry, too. The fact is that we need to not encourage that consolidation,” Tester said. “If we can get more locally grown food, and get producers to connect up with consumers eyeball to eyeball, that’s a positive thing. And I don’t want to diminish their ability to do this. My amendment really protects the ability for farmers markets to flourish and provide food for people locally, without shipping it halfway around the world and back again.”

Here’s his Senate speech:

Hagan focused on the precarious economic position of most small farms and processors, and noted that it was important that the FDA not unduly burden them with the same paperwork as a large manufacturer that would “takes them out of the field.”

Hagan was responsible for including a provision in the bill requiring the government to evaluate how to compensate farmers when a recall is determined to be erroneous.

“One false recall could put a family farm out of business,” she said this morning.