Sen. Tester touts food safety exemption for small farmers in Missoula


by Rob Chaney

Sen. Jon Tester met with his fellow farmers on Friday to explain how he'd kept them out of new federal food regulations.

"When I first saw the bill, it didn't take into consideration farmers markets and direct marketing," Tester said during a visit to the Good Food Store in Missoula. "In the end, it would have eliminated your ability to sell at farmers markets."

S. 510 imposes new requirements for food safety and quality. While he agreed the bill is necessary to keep dangers like salmonella and E. coli contamination out of the nation's food supply, Tester said it shouldn't wipe out the nation's small farmers in the process. His amendment provided several exemptions for local producers – those who sell less than $500,000 a year or deliver within a 275-mile radius of their operation.

In a 74-25 vote this week the Senate agreed to take up the House-passed bill, which Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., also supports.

The original bill would have imposed federal paperwork and fees that are already covered by local and state agencies. That would have hurt dozens of small producers who supply the Good Food Store, according to store spokesman Layne Rolston. A four-page list of vendors covers everything from gluten-free baking mixes to steak and wine, as well as eggs and vegetables.

The threat was real for Good Egg Farm owner Leslie Kline of Moiese, one of several food producers who came to see Tester. She sells most of her eggs in Missoula.

"It would have been a disaster without the amendment," Kline said. "We market to local communities that have oversight over us. They are our regulators, in a way. Big farms selling across the world don't have that kind of relationship."

National Federation of Independent Businesses senior vice president Susan Eckerly also praised the amendment in a Friday news release. She cited a Small Business Administration report that found small firms spent $2,830 more per employee on government regulations than do larger companies, a 36 percent difference.

While Tester still operates his farm in Big Sandy, he said none of the food he produces there would qualify for his amendment's exemptions.

"Now we've just got to get it across the finish line and we'll be in good shape," Tester said. The amendment passed by a 2-to-1 margin, but the main bill won't be voted on until Nov. 29.