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The U.S. Senate will soon vote on a bill that could make great strides to improving the safety of the food Montanans and all Americans eat.

My colleagues and I at the Montana Public Health Association are greatly concerned by the potentially adverse consequences that may result from Sen. Jon Tester’s proposed amendments to the Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510). His proposal would exempt certain farms and small facilities from important record-keeping requirements, produce-safety standards and other important measures in the federal legislation, and only subject these businesses to local oversight.

We know that people throughout the state and the nation rely on federal, state and local public health departments for protection from dangers in the food supply.

Sole reliance on state and local food regulations, however, is not a viable option for Montana. This is because there are not any current state or local regulations in place to guide small growers in Montana, and federal standards only apply to food products that cross state lines.

While our organization fully supports the promotion of small, locally grown food, we firmly believe that standardized, sensible standards and inspection requirements that promote food safety need to be in place for producers large and small.

In response to the argument that produce-safety standards will be onerous for small growers, I would point to students at Montana State University, led by sanitarian Toots Taszut, who fully implemented a local garden that follows the federal food-safety guidelines. What is grown in this garden supplies the entire campus with locally grown foods.

Additionally, the students and faculty produced a manual titled “Towne Harvest Garden, Good Agricultural Handling Processes.” Through this process, it has been determined that the existing federal food-safety guidelines, which will be the foundation for future standards, are completely workable and did not require additional staffing or increased workloads.

Allowing small farmers to be fully exempt from the federal food-safety system puts the health of all Montanans at risk. As guardians of the public health and welfare, we cannot support any blanket exemptions from the requirements of S. 510.

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For the first time in decades, historic food-safety reform intended to protect American families is in sight. This summer, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a strong food-safety bill, and the Senate is very close to passing its own legislation. Together, they can help ensure that Montanans and all Americans will have a much safer food supply.

I urge Tester to consider the potential negative impacts his plan will have on public health and withdraw these proposed amendments.

Juli Louttit is an assistant project coordinator with the Montana Public Health Association, and writes from Bozeman.

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