Some Montana farmers, agriculture groups and state officials fear that a bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives two weeks ago could have a "deleterious" effect, as one official puts it, on small-scale producers around the state.
The Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, considered an important step in combating outbreaks of food-borne illnesses such as E. coli and salmonella, would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) new powers in tracking and ordering recalls on tainted foods, and increases facility inspections by the agency.
"On paper, that's a very appealing concept," says Patty Lovera of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Food & Water Watch. "But in reality, that can be very expensive—and it can be very expensive for the small guys, especially...It's one of those things where the devil is in the details."
And there are plenty of details throughout the 117-page bill. Two provisions in particular cause concern in Montana. One would significantly boost the frequency of facility inspections. Another would require producers to register with the FDA and pay a $500 annual fee.
"That is not a happy part of the picture for folks doing small-scale processing and things like that," Lovera says.
The bill exempts facilities that sell more than half of their processed products directly to consumers (like at a farmers' market) from paying the fee, but ag groups contend that the exemption is insufficient for producers like Ernie Harvey of Victor-based Lifeline Farm.
Harvey, a Missoula farmers' market vender, says Lifeline sells the majority of its products wholesale to outlets like the Good Food Store, meaning it would have to pay the annual fee. His primary beef, though, is the specter of more meddlesome federal inspections.
"All these different agencies," he says, "everybody wants a piece of the pie, and it does get to be a real pain in the ass."
Rep. Denny Rehberg voted against the bill, and Aaron Murphy, spokesman for Sen. Jon Tester, says the senator "feels that food safety efforts should focus on large-scale producers and facilities where problems start—not family farms and ranches."