House OKs bill to tighten food growing, processing


From the condiment aisle at the grocery store to produce tables at the local farmers market, foods would face tighter growing and processing standards under a bill that has cleared the House.

The legislation, approved 283-142 on Thursday, would require the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, to set growing and handling regulations for fruit and vegetable farms of all sizes, from multinational companies such as Dole Foods Co. to small-scale organic growers in Iowa who sell to nearby stores or markets.

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The bill moves to the Senate, which has yet to start working on its version of the legislation.

The bill also would increase FDA oversight over food processors, including about 350 in Iowa. All processors for the first time would be required to have specific plans for preventing contamination of their products, a requirement now imposed on meatpackers, seafood handlers and juice makers. Processors also would be required to show safety records to inspectors and would have to pay a $500 annual fee to help fund the FDA.

Advocates of the bill say it will improve the safety of food and help prevent a repeat of the nationwide recalls of spinach and peanut butter that plagued the food industry recently.

"What we're looking at is the implementation of food safety program plans across the entire food industry instead of just for meat and poultry, juice and seafood," said Sam Beattie, an Iowa State University Extension specialist who advises processors and farms on food safety.

Small-scale farms and processors have complained that the regulations would unfairly penalize them for outbreaks that have linked to corporate operations.

"Local and small organic growers are going to wind up paying the price for this legislation," said Chris Blanchard, who sells about $300,000 a year in organically grown produce from his farm near Decorah.

But Beattie said the rules would make small farms and processors safer, too.

"We find some things that are pretty scary" on small farms, Beattie said, citing a grower who admitted washing her produce in pond water before taking it to the market. Farms also can contaminate crops if they don't compost manure adequately before using it as fertilizer or apply it at the wrong time, he said.

Food poisonings linked to farmers markets or locally produced foods would undermine consumer confidence, he said.

The leading Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., would increase scrutiny of processors but would not set standards for fruit and vegetable farms. His bill also lacks the fee on processors.

The House bill was backed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents such companies as Cargill, Del Monte, General Mills and Nestle. Farm organizations won some last-minute changes, including an exemption for grain growers from the production standards.

But they didn't go far enough for the American Farm Bureau Federation, which remains concerned about the FDA's regulation of fruit and vegetable farms.

"There are problems at the FDA that need to be fixed, but we don't need to create a whole new system," said Kelli Ludlum, a Farm Bureau policy specialist.

Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, said the bill "goes too far in terms of trying to produce food from a bureaucrat's chair in Washington, D.C."

Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said the fee on processors could discourage farmers from starting businesses.

Farmers such as Blanchard are concerned the FDA would force growers to destroy wildlife habitat to protect fields from contamination from animal feces. The bill gives the agency broad authority to write the farming rules but requires the agency to take into concerns about farm size and wildlife habitat.

Blanchard relies on birds to eat insects that attack his broccoli and crops. "It's a complex system. It's either that or I have to spray pesticides." He sells to stores and directly to consumers by subscription.

As an organically certified grower, he already must comply with some safety standards, including regulations on composting manure. To further guard against contamination, employees are trained to wash their hands before handling the vegetables and to stay home if ill.

Consumer activists argue that there is no justification for exempting farms and processors from regulation just because of size.

Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who represents victims of food poisoning, said a blog posting the bill should improve food safety.

"It is past time for every part of the food economy - regardless of size - to become part of the system, to share in the costs of the system, and to promote the safety of the system," he wrote.