As food safety bill flounders, Vt. farmers question benefits

VERMONT — On Nov. 30, in a rare showing of bipartisan agreement, 73 U.S. Senators voted to pass the Food Safety and Modernization Act. Since that date, however, the bill has lingered in a state of purgatory. While Senate Democrats on Friday continued to push for the legislation, the window of opportunity was closing quickly.
The act is an attempt to address a number of recent disease outbreaks associated with large food producers, including a salmonella outbreak in August that led to the recall of half a billion eggs produced by one Iowa company. The act would mandate a major overhaul of federal food safety standards and the most significant restructuring of the FDA in 70 years.
But while the bill’s passage looked doubtful on Friday afternoon, it has prompted Vermont farmers to examine their relationship to federal food standards.
“There’s a tendency for these one-size-fits-all regulatory programs to hit smaller farmers harder,” said Clark Hinsdale, a former Charlotte dairy farmer and the president of the Vermont Farm Bureau. Hinsdale said the bill’s affect on small producers would not become clear for some time. But the difficulty for small Vermont farmers, he said, comes when all producers are asked to maintain the same safety standards as big producers.
This issue is one that several provisions and amendments in the Senate bill attempt to address. One provision, added by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), would exempt small farmers and processors that sell directly to producers. Hinsdale said the majority of agricultural industries in the state are aimed at local consumption — fruits and vegetables.
But he said that it’s also important to consider Vermont’s two very significant exports, dairy and maple products. These products cross state lines and thus fall into federally regulated categories.
“About 95 percent of milk is consumed outside of Vermont,” he said. “It brings money into the state.”
And with Vermont’s growing chicken, meat, vegetable and fruit industries, more small producers could fall under federal regulation in coming years.
Rep. Will Stevens (I-Shoreham) said some of the added regulations are just the price of doing business. Stevens said that 29 years ago, when he began farming, small vegetable farmers faced significantly fewer regulations on both state and federal levels.
“Now if I were the same age looking to get into this, it would be way harder,” he said.
But, said Stevens, changes in federal food safety regulations may not provide the same assurance for consumers that, say, driving past a small farm might.
“You can’t be against food safety, but you have to wonder about some of the regulations,” he said. “Does a food safety bill actually take away that concern (of food contamination)? I’m not sure that it does.
“Folks are saying, ‘The relationship with my neighbor is important, without federal inspections,’” he added.
After the senate passed the Food Safety and Modernization Act in late November, it was bounced back to the House due to a technicality. It passed the House again, this time as a part of the omnibus, end-of-year appropriations bill. But after the spending bill failed to pass the Senate late Thursday night, the food safety bill looked to be dead.
Regardless of the current bill’s passage Vermont farmers will be keeping a close eye on federal regulations in coming years, as legislators attempt to address issues of contamination in mass-distributed produce.
“(For smaller farmers) food safety risks are way less than with the food safety risks of products that travel thousands of miles. For food that crosses national and international lines, the regulatory issues are much greater,” said Hinsdale.
“We want a uniform outcome, but we don’t necessarily want a uniform set of regulations for how you get there.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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