Friday, July 31, 2009

Food Safety Votes--the aftermath

To: All PASA Members

From: Brian Snyder, Executive Director

I just want to give everyone a quick update after a VERY dramatic week in Congress concerning the food safety legislation we have been following. The outcome is that HR 2749 – the so-called “Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009” – passed the House of Representatives yesterday, but they had to bend the rules to get it done. As reported last week, leaders of the House attempted to pass the bill on Wednesday under “suspension,” which requires a two-thirds vote to avoid any real debate or amendments. The “loss” on Wednesday was a direct result of grassroots efforts within the organic and sustainable farming communities to get further improvements in the bill, particularly regarding the flat fee system it would initiate. To wit, the margin of failure in Wednesday’s vote was seven, which was quite a bit less than the number of representatives voting “no” on behalf of our issues. However, the near success of the bill on Wednesday caused the House to change the rules on Thursday to only require a simple majority – though still without much debate (an hour was allowed) or any amendments – which resulted in easy passage. But we were pleased that the debate on the bill yesterday did include a reading of the Kaptur-Farr language, on which we had collaborated, into the record for later consideration in Conference Committee negotiations.

There were many successes for us in the process of putting this bill together, enough so that we can consider its passage to be a “good” thing, especially in that it codifies much of the exemption and other progressive language we will definitely be glad to have on the table once a Conference Committee does convene (i.e. after a Senate bill passes, which might contain some other positive elements for our community). Though we did not set out to defeat food safety legislation, and all along wanted a very good bill to pass, we can also view the results of the suspension vote on Wednesday to be a very positive thing, because now it is understood by everyone that the advocates of sustainable agriculture are too numerous to easily allow other suspension votes (i.e. shutting down debate) without their support. It is also a very positive thing for PASA that we were able to show national leadership through this process, and in fact had a direct role in constructing favorable language in this bill, even right up to the final days and hours of the process.

On the more negative side, we still have the very regressive fee structure to contend with in the bill as passed, though I do want to be clear that the exemptions we got into the bill would make this a non-issue for most of our members. I think folks in Washington were very surprised to find that sustainable ag advocates were not happy to improve the situation just for our own members, but were concerned for small-scale food processing businesses of all kinds. This is a battle that will continue throughout the process to come. It’s also disappointing that many of the consumer groups we have worked closely with on issues such as milk labeling and antibiotic use on farms, ended up parting ways with us in this debate. It was clear they wanted this bill to pass, even it meant leaving behind some of their better partners along the way. In the final debate on this bill, a list of organizations that formed the “winning” coalition included just about all the conventional ag advocates, plus most of the best known consumer advocacy groups – an odd combination for sure. I think we can use this lesson, however, in building enthusiasm for our own consumer-organizing efforts in the future (e.g. with the Good Food Neighborhood).

Well, this is a little longer than I expected. Time for me to get back to Snyder family activities in this week that was a long-planned “vacation” for us. I will at least return to work next week knowing that PASA is a stronger and even more respected organization for the work we have done on these issues of huge importance to both farmers and non-farming consumers in the future. Thanks to all of you for your help in recent weeks!

Best to all,

Brian Snyder
Executive Director, PASA

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