Mid-Columbia farmers are paying close attention as Congress considers the Food Safety Modernization Act.
The bill came out of the E. coli and salmonella outbreaks in recent years in which federal investigators had to track where the contaminated food came from and where the products were being sold. More than 5,000 people a year die from food-related illnesses in the U.S.
The act would give the Food and Drug Administration the power to recall foods and increase inspections for food processing plants. The FDA would have to hire thousands of additional employees if the bill passes, according to a Congressional Budget Office cost estimate.
The bill would be the first major overhaul of food safety laws since the 1930s. The estimated $1.4 billion cost would be paid for with new fees for farmers and processors.
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But there's some concern that the new regulations would make the cost of doing business so high it could put small farmers out of business.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., introduced an amendment that was approved that would exempt small farms from provisions of the bill, but that has upset many farmers with bigger operations.
Tester's provision exempts farms that have sold less than $500,000 worth of food annually in the previous three years, with the majority of that food sold in the same state or within 275 miles. He said the provision is intended to protect small family farms.
But Chris Voigt, head of the Washington Potato Commission, said everyone who farms for profit should be covered by the food safety bill. "It really has to be a even playing field for everyone," he said.
It shouldn't matter if a farmer is producing one acre of food or 500 acres, Voigt said, the rules to protect food safety should be the same. He pointed out the bill does not make distinctions between products with different safety histories.
"There has never been a food safety issue with potatoes," Voigt said. "We're a very low-risk vegetable."
Yet, he said, potato growers will pay more for inspections and registration under the bill.
Pasco farmer Ed Schneider, who grows potatoes, peas, sweet corn and hay, said it just takes one farmer selling contaminated produce to make the public feel uncomfortable about buying that fruit or vegetable.
"Your product can be perfectly safe and then someone sells something bad -- and no one wants to buy that food anymore," Schneider said.
Another area farmer, Ron Reimann, an owner of T&R Farms which grows apples, sweet corn, potatoes and wheat, said it is a fairness issue.
"It's like having a speed limit just for those who drive a lot," Reimann said. "If you are going to have food safety, it needs to include all the food."
The bill was approved by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday and now must be reconciled with a bill passed by the House.
* Cathy Kessinger: 582-1535; firstname.lastname@example.org