Fight over food safety bill continues off Capitol Hill

Even with Congress out of session, heated debate over pending food safety legislation continues.

Consumer advocates with the Make Our Food Safe coalition wrote to senators on Tuesday urging them to reject an amendment carving out small farmers. The advocates say they are "deeply concerned about [the] impact on the safety of the food supply" of the amendment sponsored by Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.).

"The exemptions in the Tester amendment are based only on the sales volume of the grower or processor ($500,000 in annual sales) and its geographic proximity (within 400 miles) to a qualified end-user (which can be a consumer, a grocery store or a restaurant)," the coalition said in a statement. "It does not take into consideration the risk to human health posed by a particular food item. As a result, high-risk foods would be exempt from safety regulations."

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents small farmers, responded Wednesday with its own statement.

"On the basis of a surprisingly inaccurate analysis of what the Tester-Hagan amendment proposes to do, the organizations behind the letter to Senators reach a conclusion in opposition to the amendment," said Ferd Hoefner, NSAC’s policy director. "Our strong hope is once they look at the actual details of the amendment they will change their position. The sooner they remove this damaging new roadblock to passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act in the short time left in this session of Congress the better."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) filed for cloture on the bill before recess. A vote could happen as early as Nov. 17.

The legislation would give the Food and Drug Administration the power to recall tainted food, quarantine geographical areas and access food producers’ records. It was expected to pass by unanimous consent before recess after Democrats and Republicans on the Health Committee worked out a compromise, but Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) objected.

The House passed its version of food safety legislation in July 2009.