Ag groups lobby Senate on food safety bill

Trade associations representing everything from small farmers to pork producers are looking to the Senate for quick fixes to a food safety bill that passed the House Thursday.

Several say they want to see the bill become law in order to improve the safety of a national food chain that is in dire need of reform. Many, however, believe the legislation is in need of improvement while others will work to defend language in the House bill that protects their respective industries.

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"We want to make it better in the Senate," said Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union. "We just want to make sure it gets at the problems."

Johnson said the NFU wants to see a food safety bill passed but there are some tweaks that still could be made. For example, Johnson believes a $500 annual producer fee that will help pay for increased inspections should not be flat but be scaled to production levels or smaller facilities should be exempted outright.

NFU lobbyists plan to meet with Senate aides during the August recess and "when the bill looks like it will be picked up, we will be right quick to be a part of that," Johnson said.

Representatives for agricultural groups are looking to food safety legislation by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) that has attracted co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle as a vehicle in the Senate.

But it is still unclear on who will take up the food safety bill in the upper chamber, which passed in the House 283-142 Thursday. In addition, the legislation will have to compete for floor space with a number of other priorities in the fall, such as healthcare reform and a climate change bill, creating "a bottleneck," according to Johnson.

"We just intend to work the Senate side as hard as we did the House side," said Christine Bushway, executive director for the Organic Trade Association (OTA).

OTA lobbied hard to include language in the House bill that would avoid overregulation of organic farming, which already follows several safety practices outlined in the legislation, such as inspection by third parties and being able to trace the food supply.

Like OTA, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) is lobbying the Senate to avoid duplication of regulation for pork farmers. They will want to protect is a provision that exempts products, facilities and farms raising animals who are already regulated by U.S. Department of Agriculture from coming under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The NPPC does take issue with a mandatory recall authority given to the FDA in the House bill, which would give greater power to the safety agency and less input from industry.

"It doesn’t allow the regulator to work with collaboratively with the industry," said Jennifer Greiner, director of science and technology at the NPPC. "On the meat side, we never told our regulator that ‘No, we are not going to recall it.’"

In September, the NPPC is flying in its pig farmers to meet with senators to show how their industry has already been working with regulators. But Greiner said the trade association plans to keep up lobbying during the recess as well.

"Those efforts will not stop. We will continue that over the recess," Greiner said.