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The Senate yesterday voted 74-25 to move ahead with a debate on legislation that would overhaul the nation’s system for keeping food safe. The bill would give new powers to the Food and Drug Administration and make farmers and processors responsible for preventing illnesses caused by food.

It’s a big bill. Read the Washington Post here for a good overview. 

Nobody seems to doubt that rules governing food safety are weak and that the FDA lacks up-to-date enforcement tools. Food illnesses, in the meantime, kill 5,000 Americans a year.

One of the contentious parts of the bill is an amendment from Sen. Jon Tester of Montana. Tester proposes that farmers with sales of less than $500,000 and who sell most of their product directly to consumers, restaurants or nearby retailers should be exempt from the bill. “The risk that they pose is small,” Sen. Tester said. “They have the ability to meet their consumers eyeball to eyeball. They’re not raising a commodity; they’re raising food. There’s a pride of ownership.”

Tester’s amendment is backed by local foods movement writers such as Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. They are mounting a grassroots lobbying campaign in favor of the Tester exemption. 

DTN’s Chris Clayton reports that Tester argues that food processing has become a concentrated market and that this is a cause of the food illness problem. If all producers were subject to the bill’s regulations, Tester says, food processing would become even more concentrated. 

“The problem with our food supply is not with the little guy,” Tester told Clayton. “It’s with the industrialized model that distributes to 20, 30 states, and you can’t trace it back to where it came from, or it’s very difficult to trace back to where it came from, and it creates a problem.”

Meanwhile, at Grist, there is an interesting discussion on this subject. Some food safety advocates say that the record keeping required of farmers is what they should be doing anyway — and, besides, the issue is safety. 

A vote on the bill could come as early as next week.

• The city of Pittsburgh (above) has banned natural gas drilling within city limits. This is the first such ban in the state, where many rural communities are seeing a boom in natural gas exploration and production. 

Pittsburgh is atop the Marcellus Shale formation that is the center of a huge gas play. Certain production techniques can cause environmental problems. 

The vote on the city council was unanimous. 

• One of the largest livestock brokerages in the country is bouncing checks, according to the Louisville newspaper. The USDA says that Eastern Livestock Co. wrote at least $81 million in hot checks to cattle producers between Nov. 3 and the 10th. 

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