As harbingers of harvest season gusted in on a cool Rattlesnake Valley wind, Montana Sen. Jon Tester took a moment on Friday afternoon to plant a few last seeds of support for his amendments to Senate Bill 510, the so-called Food Safety Bill.
Speaking to a small gathering of reporters and food activists at the PEAS Farm in the Rattlesnake, Tester said his amendments would protect small farmers and ranchers from overly burdensome federal regulation, without undercutting the bill's intent to create a more transparent, accountable and safe system for food producers in America.
"While I agree that we need to have better regulations for these multistate, huge corporations that take food off fields, throw it all together and distribute it to many states, I think the state and local entities can do a much better job (regulating) the people who are direct-marketing food," said Tester.
The Food Safety Bill would give greater power to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to recall tainted food, increase inspections of food processors and require producers to follow stricter safety standards.
Tester's amendments would, in essence, exempt from those new regulations any farmers and ranchers who earn less than $500,000 in annual gross sales or who sell to consumers, restaurants or through other direct channels within a 400-mile radius. Small farms and ranches would still be regulated by state and local agencies, as well as existing Federal laws.
Since the Food Safety Bill was introduced in early 2009, it has gained bipartisan support in Congress and among industry groups; however, its progress has stalled in the Senate, largely due to the opposition of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Tester said on Friday that he believes Coburn is prepared to step out of the way and allow the bill to progress, perhaps as soon as next week.
"He's showed some leanings toward pulling his hold on the bill this last week, so we're hopeful that will happen soon at this point," said Tester.
Tester said that while the bill's provisions are essential to creating a safer food system in America, they aren't necessary or applicable to smaller operations such as the PEAS Farm.
"In Washington, D.C., we try to have one-size-fits-all, and way too many times it doesn't work that way," said Tester. In the case of smaller farms and ranches, "the connection with the consumer is direct and personal. These folks aren't raising a commodity, they're raising food, and they treat it as such. There's a whole lot of self-regulation in that. They'd still be regulated by local and state regulators."
Josh Slotnik, manager of the PEAS Farm, said Tester's amendments are critical to the sustenance of the 9.5-acre farm, which is run jointly by Garden City Harvest and the University of Montana's Environmental Studies Program.
"We sell everything we grow within our valley," said Slotnik. "If it wasn't for (Tester's amendments), we'd be looking at a $100,000 investment, which would do us in. Instead, this will allow us to take the profits and hire more people and continue to thrive and grow."