Tester gets feedback from farmers about food safety, farm bill


by Chelsi Moy

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester had food on his mind Monday.

On the eve of President Barack Obama signing new federal food safety legislation – which Tester played a role in writing – the Democrat gathered local agriculture representatives together in Missoula to look even farther into the country's food future: to reauthorization of the farm bill.

Tester squeezed in the roundtable discussion before heading back to Washington, D.C., but there are many more listening sessions to come, he said.

"This is the first of a number of meetings," he said. "I'm in a listening mode right now."

Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act two weeks ago, which aims to prevent food-borne illnesses. The legislation gives the Food and Drug Administration the ability to enact recalls, requires more recordkeeping and transparency among food producers and farmers, and demands that imported foods meet U.S. food safety standards.

Tester, a Big Sandy farmer, successfully proposed an amendment exempting small farmers and food producers who sell their products locally and earn less than $500,000 a year. Tester called the amendment a "real positive for local producers and the local-grown food movement."

Large agriculture groups opposed the amendment, saying no one should be exempt from producing safe food.

But the group that gathered in the basement of the Missoula Public Library on Monday thanked the senator for his attention and contributions to the bill.

The legislation was not only needed, said Neva Hassanein, a University of Montana environmental studies associate professor, but Tester is a "hero" for looking out for small farmers and "ensuring folks that market locally won't be saddled in regulations."

Looking ahead, Tester's attention is on upcoming agricultural and conservation policy. The 2008 Farm Bill is up for reauthorization again in 2012. Tester asked the 10-member panel to provide feedback about programs in the 2008 Farm Bill that worked and things that needed improvement.

The group asked that Congress maintain funding levels for agricultural programs, if not bolster that support.

One concern includes the threat of genetically modified foods on the organic label.

"It's hard to keep genetically-modified food out of the store because they are everywhere," said Pam Clevenger, the Good Food Store grocery manager and a Bitterroot Valley orchardist.

Labeling and buffer zones are helpful tools, but redirecting the liability to the companies that own the genetically modified food patents ought to share in the responsibility for making sure organic foods are not contaminated, said Kristina Hubbard of the Organic Seed Alliance.

Organic farmers have a hard time tracking where genetically modified foods are grown. They have all the responsibility for making sure their products are organic yet no control, said Josh Slotnick, Garden City Harvest's PEAS farm director.

Other concerns include development of agricultural lands and ensuring low-income individuals have access to healthy, locally grown foods.

Between 1986 and 2008, Missoula County lost 29,000 acres of working farmland to development, said Paul Hubbard, program coordinator for the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition.