Industry groups putting the screws to senators over food-safety bill amendments
Photo: Cowgirl JulesThe latex gloves are coming off on the sausage-making of S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act. The Senate has voted 74 to 25 for cloture, which starts the 60-day clock for a vote in the full Senate and the amendment process.
Two very important amendments to the bill are currently the subject of fierce lobbying by industry. We’ve already extensively discussed the Tester-Hagan amendment, which would exempt small and very small farms and food processing businesses (defined as those that make under a certain amount of money, and that earn at least 50 percent of their revenue from direct-to-consumer sales like farmers markets or CSAs), from some of the bill’s requirements.
It’s worth noting that such direct sales of agricultural products totaled just $1.2 billion in 2007, or 0.4 percent of total agricultural sales, according to the USDA. That’s the tiniest drop in the bucket, but it’s growing fast every year — sales are up 105 percent in the last decade, double the rate that overall agricultural sales have grown.
Which may explain why agribusiness groups considers such small operations enough of a threat that they’re taking the legislative route to block any further growth. On Monday, the American Meat Institute, Corn Refiners Association, and 28 other meat, pet food, and fresh produce industry groups sent a letter [PDF] to the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee chairman and ranking members on the bill to oppose the Tester amendment.
The letter says:
For the public to have confidence in the food safety system, Congress and federal regulators must bring all segments of the food production and processing system into compliance with national safety standards. We believe technical assistance, training, extended transition timeframes for compliance, and financial support are more appropriate ways to assist small businesses throughout the food distribution chain to comply with important food safety standards. We urge the Senate to incorporate these types of provisions into the final bill rather than provide blanket exemptions.
As the panel of experts in our Food Fight series has exhaustively observed, neither the bill nor the Tester amendment mean that small farms won’t have to follow good food-safety practice. “It’s important to realize that the Tester-Hagan amendment isn’t truly an ‘exemption’ — the producers who fall within it will remain subject to all existing federal food safety laws and state and local regulation,” wrote Judith McGeary, founder and executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance.
In an unusual move for two such prominent journalists, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser announced yesterday that they support both the bill and the Tester amendment. “S. 510 is the most important food safety legislation in a generation,” they said in a written statement released by Tester’s office. “The Tester amendment will make it even more effective, strengthening food safety rules while protecting small farmers and producers. We both think this is the right thing to do.”
Prominent consumer groups, including Consumer Union and the Pew Charitable Trust, have aligned themselves with industry in opposing the Tester amendment. Yet it appears to be very much in play, according to sources close to the action.
“The last few days have yielded significant compromises and improvements to the Tester-Hagan language. Most of the issues on the table a week ago have been settled and agreed to, though one or two still remain. We are cautiously optimistic those can be settled very soon, and that the amendment will then be incorporated in the Manager’s amendment,” says Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
Hoefner believes that the next vote (on the motion to proceed to consideration of the bill) and the one after (on approving the Manager’s amendment) will “pass handily.”
That may not be enough for it to become law. Bill Marler, the food-safety attorney, blogged yesterday that the Tester amendment — which he supports, with reservations — amounts to a sort of “poison pill” for S. 510’s larger prospects: “If S. 510 passes it is not going to pass without the Tester amendment. However, with the Tester amendment, the House is never going to take it up before the end of the year” because of how broadly defined the small-processor exclusions are, and because S. 510 doesn’t have funding in it.
Prospects for the other amendment being closely watched by consumer groups and sustainable food advocates are not looking as good. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wrote an amendment setting a six-month window for banning the endocrine-disrupting chemical bisphenol-A from being used in baby bottles and children’s drinking cups. Greenwrire reported today that the bipartisan deal for the BPA amendment has fallen apart:
The American Chemistry Council (ACC), chemical manufacturers’ chief Washington lobbying arm, “opposes even that” and has mobilized other Republicans against any attempt to address BPA on the food legislation, Feinstein said.
“I don’t understand how a chemical group would oppose taking a chemical which, at the very least, may impact the endocrine systems of infants [out of products] because they want to make money on it,” the California Democrat added, calling the situation “very, very frustrating.”
There’s still time to tell your senators that you want them to ignore these industry lobbying groups and pass a bill that will better protect all Americans from food-borne illness and known carcinogens in their food. Call them today: Go to www.Senate.gov to find your representatives’ contact information or call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.
Because if you’ve read the 20,000 words of debate that Grist has published about this bill, you hopefully agree with our panelists that the system it will create, though concerningly vague in places, will be better than the one we’ve got now.