Food Safety Bill passes with Montana amendments

Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

A bill calling for sweeping reforms in the nation's food safety regulations passed the U.S. Senate Tuesday with small business exceptions sought by Montanans.

Crafted in response to several national food poisoning outbreaks, the bill gives the Food and Drug Administration the power to impose mandatory food recalls. It passed 73 to 25.

Currently, recalls by food companies suspected of making people sick are voluntary, with the FDA urging cooperation when contamination is found.

The bill also increases inspection requirements not only for finished foods, but also for the types of hard-to-trace raw ingredients that have contaminated myriad products from multiple manufacturers making the source of food contamination hard to determine.

Those changes were considered too broad, by small businesses and farms selling food at local grocery stores, farmers markets and restaurants. The groups worried the cost of compliance would put them out of business.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., managed to get the Food Safety and Modernization Act amended so that small businesses and farms marketing products locally would continue to be regulated by state and local authorities.

The bill, which now must be reconciled by one passed in the House in mid 2009, was delayed several times over the past year.

Tester said after Tuesday's vote that it was significant to get the bill passed in the lame duck session of the Senate.

"I think it was a big deal. If you take a look at the incidents of issues in the food supply, e coli and whatever, it was very important and it was important to get it done right," Tester said.

The amendment exempts food processors and small farms that market locally at the grocery, restaurant and retail level, provided they have less than $500,000 a year in sales. Those producers have to sell their products in state or within 275 miles of where the food was produced.

Provided food safety didn't become an issue, those small players would remain under local government control. However, if local governments failed to regulate, or illness did occur, the FDA would have the right to intervene.

The bill was applauded by local food advocates like the Good Earth Market and the Northern Plains Resource Council.

Tester's amendment was also criticized by New York Times, which said exemptions to FDA enforcement undermined food safety.

However the amendment was also called essential by the Michael Pollan, author of the "Food Rules: An Eater's Manual" and Eric Schlosser, author of "Fast Food Nation" and producer of the documentary "Food Inc."