Food Safety Update: Some Victories Gained, Some Questions Remain

      Posted On: December 16, 2009

On Wednesday, November 18, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee unanimously approved a revised version of S. 510, opening the possibility for Senate floor action on the bill early next year.

In its current form, the bill aims to expand the FDA’s food safety mandate and puts an end to overly lenient food safety requirements for large processors. The recent revisions also address four of the Farmers Market Coalition’s Nine Food Safety Points:

FMC Point: USDA/FDA should focus regulation on sectors of the food system with the greatest risk profile, using evidence-based research and assessments developed by the CDC in cooperation with agricultural experts from Cooperative Extension.
Senate Revision: FDA is instructed to create rules that take into account the scale and diversity of a farm’s operations.

FMC Point: FDA must narrow the kinds of farm activities subject to FDA control and base those regulations on sound risk analysis.  Current FDA rules assume, without any scientific evidence or risk analysis, that all farms which undertake any one of a long list of processing, labeling or packaging activities should be regulated.
Senate Revision: FDA is instructed to create rules that prioritize crops associated with foodborne illness.

FMC Point: New regulations need to be consistent with conservation and environmental practice standards established by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, promoting diverse cropping systems that mitigate the spread of pathogens.  All USDA and FDA practices and regulations should be coordinated and consistent, since farmers cannot be forced to choose between irreconcilable directives from different agencies.
Senate Revision: Produce standards are required to be coordinated between the FDA and the USDA, including reference to the National Organic Program. FDA is instructed to take into consideration conservation and environmental standards established by federal agencies.

FMC Point: Farmers who sell their own fresh fruits and vegetables directly to consumers should be exempt from traceability requirements, and farmers who sell directly to restaurants and grocery stores should have traceability requirements limited to basic farm-gate ‘one up, one down’ record-keeping of sales and purchases.
Senate Revision: Recordkeeping for produce farms without processing facilities is limited to information about the sale to the first purchaser of the crop.

However, despite this progress, the bill still includes several worrisome points which could leave the door open for FDA to place undue burdens on local food systems.

What’s next?

Senate floor action is considered likely early in 2010, although there is a chance it could reach the floor before the end of this year.  The House has already passed its companion bill (HR 2749), so once the full Senate takes action, the House and Senate will conference to work out the wide ranging differences between the two bills.  The Farmers Market Coalition will continue to advocate for:

  • Exemptions from registration farms that would otherwise qualify as ‘facilities’ but who market at least 50% (in gross sales) directly to consumers, restaurants, or grocery stores.
  • Keeping Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) voluntary, not mandatory, for direct-marketing producers, and provide practical, affordable GAPs certification options.
  • Ensuring that local food safety educators and enforcers are adequately and consistently trained about how regulations do or do not apply to farmers markets.
  • Providing USDA and FDA-funded training and technical assistance for farmers and food facilities that fit the definition of a small business, to help them develop realistic site-specific plans to minimize microbial risks.
  • Ensuring that marketing agreements and orders are not used to regulate food safety.

For more information, please take a look at FMC’s updated Food Safety Statement and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s Food Safety Policy Brief. Stay tuned for updates on this important issue, and thank you for your support–together, we are strengthening farmers markets for the benefit of farmers, consumers, and communities.