Natural Foods Merchandiser

House rejects food safety law; small farmers to get fee consideration in the next round

The controversial food safety act draft failed to pass in the House today, but the bill will likely return with amendments that do not disproportionately impose fees on small farms and medium-sized food producers.

The vote of 280 to 150 was just shy of the two-thirds needed for passage. The bill was voted under a special process known as suspension, which is basically a fast-track process usually reserved for non-controversial issues that are passed without additional amendments.

The bill would have increased funding for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to enforce rules and would have given the government the power to order mandatory recalls of products suspected to have food safety issues.

The law aims to restore public confidence in the nation's food supply by empowering the FDA to prevent future contaminations like the recent outbreaks of E. coli in spinach and salmonella in peanut butter.

Lawmakers will likely take another shot at the bill. The most contentious issue clouding the bill was the requirement that the same fees be paid by all food producers, regardless of the size of the operation. Many small farmers and ranchers said the registration fee of $500, along with additional federal inspections fees, would hurt small producers. Mega operations would have been allowed to pay the same amount.

In addition, producers have complained that proposed technology required to track foods could force some into bankruptcy and discourage others from getting into the business. The bill also did not address rules for organic farmers, who already follow certain guidelines and pay additional fees to be certified organic.

"A new bill should have a sliding scale and be both correlated to the risk of the product and also be correlated to the scale, and it should address the deal with the double-charge problem for organic farmers," said Jaydee Hanson, policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety. "The good news is we have a chance to try to fix these things."

Hanson, who called the law's initial failure "a win for the little guy," said he knows of one member of the House, who received comments from 400 farmers.

"We have been supporting (legislation) that would make our food safer," Hanson said. "They need to pass a bill, but they need to pass the right bill. Right now, this is a weak bill that didn't do enough to protect food and it dinged the small farmer to the benefit of the big operator."

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