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Food safety bill could help farmers


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POSTED: Wednesday, August 05, 2009

In an effort to restore public confidence in the safety of foods following outbreaks of tainted food, Congress is moving toward an overhaul of regulation from farms to food processors. Unless made onerous, the oversight could benefit Hawaii farmers.

The U.S. House approved a bill last week that would shift much of the authority of food inspection from the Department of Agriculture, which will continue to regulate safety only for livestock and poultry products, to the Food and Drug Administration, which has oversight over other foods but has not extended its reach to farms.

Stricter rules for fruit and vegetable were recommended by the United Fresh Produce Association, the largest fruit and vegetable lobby, as a way to restore confidence following outbreaks of salmonella, E. coli and other pathogens. Federal statistics indicate that every year one in four Americans becomes sick from food and about 5,000 die.

Under the bill, the FDA would set safety standards for farmers and for manufacturers that process food, requiring importers to abide by the same standards. It would require farmers to file reports electronically with the FDA and charge farmers and processors $500 a year to help cover the cost of the system. Small farmers would be exempt from the fee requirement.

Josh Rolph, lobbyist for the California Farm Bureau, has expressed concern that it would force farmers to “;concentrate on paperwork, keeping farmers in the office instead of in the field.”; If what Rolph calls “;new regulatory burdens”; can be minimized, the system could result in expansion of Hawaii farmers' markets.

Hawaii's hotel industry imports more than two-thirds of its agricultural products because only a small fraction of the state's farms have gone through the state's certification process, most of them finding it too cumbersome and expensive.

Restaurants require the food to be certified for safety because of liability in the case of food-borne illness. If all farms are overseen by the federal government, state certification might not be needed to satisfy the cautionary legal requirements of the hotel industry.

Farm groups are skeptical about whether the FDA is up to the task outlined in the bill. Last year, the agency wrongly identified fresh tomatoes as the source of an illness when the cause actually was located in peppers, and the infection occurred not at the farm level but during the processing.

While the authority over the nation's food supply is spread over 15 federal agencies, the bill would put 80 percent of the control under the FDA. The consolidation is a large step in the right direction.