Small Farms Would Be Exempt from Food Safety Regs

By Mary Clare Jalonick | November 18, 2010 | 6:55 PM EST

Washington (AP) - Some small farms would be exempt from government efforts to prevent foodborne illness under a Senate agreement on food safety legislation announced Thursday.

The food safety bill now pending in the Senate would give the FDA more authority to recall tainted products, increase inspections of food processors and require producers to follow stricter standards for keeping food safe. Operators of smaller farms and advocates for locally produced food have worried that the bill's requirements could force small farms out of business.

An agreement brokered by Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana would attempt to allay those concerns, allowing farmers who make less than $500,000 a year in revenue and sell directly to consumers, restaurants or grocery stores within their states or within 275 miles of their farms to avoid expensive food safety plans required of larger operations. State and local authorities would still have oversight over those farms.

Food safety advocates have objected to the exemptions, saying Tester's concerns are overblown and the size of the farm is not as important as the safety of the food. But many of those groups signed off on the Tester amendment after it was narrowed and language was added to allow the FDA to revoke exemptions for operations that have been involved in an outbreak.

The food safety bill faces other obstacles. Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma has threatened to hold up the bill unless the Senate votes on an amendment to place a moratorium on earmarks, or federal spending for pet projects in lawmakers' states and districts, and on a separate amendment that is a substitute for the food safety bill.

Coburn's objections may force Democrats to hold a second procedural vote on the legislation. The Senate voted 74-25 to proceed with the bill on Wednesday after Coburn had objected earlier, saying the legislation's $1.4 billion cost isn't paid for.

Supporters of the bill say it is crucial in the wake of large outbreaks of contaminated peanuts, eggs and produce that have sickened hundreds. The House passed similar legislation over a year ago.