The House Agriculture Committee heard testimony this week on the Food Safety Enhancement Act. Representatives of the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Meat Institute, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Farmers Union, National Pork Producers Council and other groups have joined together in voicing their concern over H.R. 2749, which includes user fees, food safety plans, recalls and record-keeping policies outlined in the legislation.
Reacting to these concerns, House Ag Committee chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., has threatened to slow the progress of the bill until the concerns of farm groups are addressed. He is worried that the bill would allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate farm activities. He says unless his concerns are met, Peterson said he may hold a markup on the bill and report it out unfavorably.
More specifically, pork producers want lawmakers to clarify the scope of new and expanded power given to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate the grain side of diversified farming operations. The question is: could pig buildings be inspected, for example, if FDA were coming on a diversified farm for a grain food-safety issue?
According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, adequate funding, increased education and training for inspectors, development of rapid testing procedures and tools, and compensation for producers who suffer marketing losses due to inaccurate government-advised recalls are critical considerations as the federal food safety system is evaluated.
Testifying on behalf of Farm Bureau, Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Federation, said the nation's food safety system must have the resources, authority and structural organization to safeguard the health of American consumers against foodborne illness. He said farmers and ranchers do understand the need for continuous food safety improvement. But, the farm-level impact on producers must be considered in any new food safety regulations or legislation.
Rocky Mountain Farmers Union President Kent Peppler told members of the House Ag committee to maintain focus on off-farm processing and imported food items when debating how to address food safety. Peppler's testimony cited the recent JBS-Swift Beef Company recall of 380,000 pounds of assorted beef products that may have been contaminated with E.coli 0157:H7 as an unwelcome reminder that the time to act on food safety is now.
"We need to be serious about addressing the flood of imported food items coming into this country," Peppler said. "The Food and Drug Administration inspects just 1% of those items, many of which coming from places around the globe that either have no food safety standards or standards in name only. American consumers and American farmers deserve better."
Peppler urged lawmakers to not get distracted during this debate by those who argue that it is the farmers who are the problem. He says farmers are the first line of defense on addressing food safety issues and Congress needs to ensure the focus remains on the core food safety issues, not individual farmers.
"None of the producer witnesses at the hearing today would support the Food Safety Enhancement Act as it is written," said former committee ranking member Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. "It is clear that members of the committee and our witnesses are concerned about the new authority the bill gives FDA to regulate on the farm production practices. The notion that FDA can dictate to farmers in every region of the country, growing and producing a vast array of crops and livestock for a range of markets, is irrational. I will continue to work with my colleagues to improve this food safety legislation."