Sen. Tester promotes amendment to Food Safety Bill

Billings Gazette

by Chelsea Krotzer

Dick Espencheid has been farming on his 740 acres outside of Bridger for the past 40 years.

Every week, he brings up a carload of produce and meats to the Good Earth Market and each summer he sells goods during the Billings Farmer's Market.

Wednesday, he brought boxes of fingerling potatoes, assortments of squash, turnips and different types of pork to market, just behind another local garlic farmer.

It's small food producers like Espencheid that make up 30 percent of the business at Good Earth Market. That same group is waiting anxiously to find out if if their farms will remain status quo.

On a 75-24 vote Wednesday morning, the U.S. Senate has agreed to debate a food safety bill that would increase requirements for food producers, with the expectation of a final vote Thursday.

The goal of SB510, the Food Safety Modernization Act, is to strengthen the Food and Drug Administration's ability to prevent food-borne illness. The bill would give the FDA power to mandate recalls and would require better record keeping, testing and tracking from food producers of all sizes.

It's the matter of farm size that Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has an issue with.

Tester has proposed an amendment to exempt small food producers from the bill. He said he small producers do not contribute to the problem.

"When I looked at this bill, I looked at it and it really does do some things to small processors and family agriculture that would be negative and further concentrate the food industry in the hands of a few guys," Tester said in a news conference this morning. "I don't think that is healthy or good for the country."

Tester's amendment would exclude small food producers who fit into the Food and Drug Administration's definition of a "very small business."

To qualify for the exclusion small food producers would have to sell a majority of their product directly to consumers, restaurants or retailers within the same state or 400 miles and make less than $500,000 annually from the business.

The 400 mile and $500,000 requirement came from the United States Department of Agriculture, Tester said.

Tester, who owns a small organic grain farm, would not be affected under the proposed amendment because he does not sell direct.

"I market it through an outfit that bags it and sells it all over the world," Tester said. "They are regulated, as they should be."

Critics of the amendment say that local food should not be exempt from food safety reforms, and that food-borne illnesses can affect small producers just as easily as major operations.

Sandra Eskin, who oversees food safety issues for the Pew Charitable Trusts, sited a case in 1995 where Ecoli contaminated lettuce that sickened nearly 100 people in the Missoula area.

The outbreak was traced to a half-dozen lettuce farms selling produce under the same brand, but that's where they lost the trail. The hope with the new bill is to increase the traceability.

Perry McNeese, manager of Good Earth Market, doesn't think traceability is an issue when it comes to small producers. He said to his knowledge, Good Earth Market has never had any food-borne illness issues since it opened in 1994.

"If I get a jar of jelly or lettuce in question, in a couple of phone calls, I can deal with it very effectively," McNeese said.

McNeese said he met with Tester a year and a half ago to support the smaller producers. If the amendment doesn't pass, he fears for the future of his producers.

"I think it would be unmanageable for a large number of my smaller producers to have tracking systems," McNeese said. "Even my bigger local suppliers are pretty much just a family, a couple of people on a farm.

"They do what they can to grow their produce and make their jellies and syrups to get it to market on a profitable basis. If you dump on top of that a bunch of tracking regulations … it would be unmanageable for a large share of them."

Espenscheid is an organic farmer. He said he already has to complete extensive amount of paperwork to keep his business going. He's not sure he can handle much more.

"We do this because we love it and we are all trying to make a living," Espenscheid said. "People look to Washington to regulate, but hopefully they keep the small person in mind."

Tester said his goal is to protect the smaller growers who contribute to farmers markets and local grocers.

"When I read this bill, it is a brush approach, there are no exemptions," Tester said. "It could be that the FDA doesn't have the people to regulate all the small folks, but God help you if you are the one small farmer they do regulate."

Tester said he hopes to get the amendment added to the bill. If not, he fears it could be the end for many smaller producers.

"It puts a nail in locally grown food, and I don't want that to happen," Tester said. "We have dealt with banking issues and consolidation. Our food system is already very, very consolidated. It doesn't make sense to pass bills that further consolidate that."