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Merry Christmas, small farmers and all eaters

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Stephanie Paige Ogburn | Dec 24, 2010 09:55 AM

The U.S. Congress gave the American public -- and small farmers and ranchers -- a bit more than a lump of E. coli-tainted coal this year. Their 2010 stocking stuffer is a freshly-passed food safety bill that gives the Food and Drug Administration additional powers to help keep our food supply safer. One important provision in the Food Safety Modernization Act, as it's formally called, gives the FDA power to enforce mandatory recalls of tainted food. Prior to this, the agency could only "ask nicely" when it found evidence of contaminated products on the shelves. The blog Obama Foodorama does a nice job of summing up all the different parts of the bill.

The law (which does not apply to meat and poultry products regulated by the USDA, a separate agency) also makes food producers come up with detailed plans to keep their products safe and ups the number of inspections the agency does, particularly at high-risk facilities.

Grocery store

The new food safety bill will allow the FDA to issue mandatory recalls of items like tainted produce and track contaminated food back to its source. Image courtesy Flickr user Anthony Albright.

Amidst the months of negotiations leading up to the bill's creation, Senator Jon Tester, D-Mont, also notched another victory in his continued work to protect the livelihood of small producers who sell largely to local markets.

The Tester-Hagan amendment to the food safety bill, sponsored by the Montana senator and Kay Hagan, D-N.C., gave an exemption from stringent reporting requirements for farms selling within state lines or 275 miles of their farm, and farms with sales of $500,000 or less who make half of their money from direct-to-consumer sales.  The amendment came about only after protracted negotiations between consumer advocacy groups and local food advocacy groups. Naturally, the consumer groups were concerned about exempting anyone from enhanced regulation, since harm-causing bacteria don't care whether a farm is two acres or 200,000 acres.

Tester's office worked hard to broker a deal that protected those who sell directly to local consumers, and yet met consumer groups' desire for increased safety requirements.

Without this amendment, the reporting requirements could have drowned smaller producers in a mountain of paperwork. Those supportive of the Tester amendment admit that small isn’t necessarily safer, but were willing to make the tradeoff in order to gain support from groups concerned about the impact of the act on independent producers. Groups such as the Center for Food Safety and Food and Water Watch recognize that keeping independent and local producers in business provides a number of other environmental and health benefits, and threw their support behind the amendment.

Large farm groups were less than thrilled, feeling it was unfair that smaller producers won exemptions.

This effort is just the latest item in the Montana senator's growing record of pro-farmer legislation. He insisted that the 2008 farm bill include provisions that would force the USDA to even the playing field in the livestock marketplace, which is dominated by large producers and buyers. He also played a key role in killing last year's controversial National Animal Identification program, loathed by small producers across the West.

President Obama is expected to sign the bill, which nearly didn't make it through the lame duck session, into law in early 2011.  And although it's weaker than some would like, and does not yet have sufficient funding, it seems a step in the right direction -- both in protecting consumer health and acknowledging that America's growing local food economy provides important services and deserves special treatment at times.

Further reading: The plucky environmental news site Grist has done a bang-up job covering the food safety bill, with experts writing on if the bill is strong enough, what impact it will have on small farmers and local producers, and whether or not the bill is even necessary.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is HCN's online editor.

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