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US Senate: Food safety bill to exempt small farms

WASHINGTON — 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 Food and Drug Administration 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.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Senate will vote on the bill after Congress returns from a one-week Thanksgiving recess. Reid said senators will vote on several amendments, including two sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Coburn had threatened to hold up the bill unless the Senate voted on the amendments. The first would place a moratorium on spending for “earmarks,” pet projects in lawmakers’ states and districts, while the second is a separate amendment that is a substitute for the food safety bill.

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.

The House passed similar legislation over a year ago. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the lead sponsor of the bill, said Thursday that he had an agreement from House members that they would take up the Senate bill if the Senate passes it.

Supporters of the bill say it is crucial in the wake of large outbreaks of contaminated peanuts, eggs and produce that have sickened hundreds.

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