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Senate passes safe-food bill; LI farmers wary

A worker picks peaches on a Cutchogue farm.

A worker picks peaches on a Cutchogue farm. (July 26, 2006) Photo Credit: Newsday photo / Thomas A. Ferrara

The Senate  passed legislation Tuesday morning to make food safer in the wake of deadly E. coli and salmonella outbreaks, potentially giving the government broad new powers to increase inspections of food processing facilities and force companies to recall tainted food.

The $1.4 billion bill, which would also place stricter standards on imported foods, passed the Senate 73 to 25. Supporters say passage is critical after widespread outbreaks in peanuts, eggs and produce, The Associated Press reported.

Those outbreaks have exposed a lack of resources and authority at the FDA as the embattled agency struggled to contain and trace the contaminated products. The agency rarely inspects many food facilities and farms, visiting some every decade or so and others not at all.

The Senate version must now be reconciled with a version the House passed in 2009.

On Monday night as the bill headed  toward a vote, Long Island farmers watched warily.

Introduced last year, the Food Safety Modernization Act is intended to reduce the risk of bacterial contamination that has in recent years led to sweeping recalls of eggs, peanut butter, hamburger meat and spinach. The legislation would give the FDA power to order recalls of tainted products -- currently the agency negotiates voluntary recalls -- and impose tougher safety standards on farmers and food manufacturers.

But smaller growers worry the new requirements will increase paperwork and costs, giving a competitive advantage to the larger agricultural concerns that some say are to blame for the recent outbreaks.

"Basically, our concern is we don't want to be overregulated," said Robert Nolan of Deer Run Farms in Brookhaven, which grows lettuce, cabbage and spinach. "Food production on Long Island has been very safe forever, and to get into a whole bunch of new regulations - I don't see a need for it."

The Senate is expected to vote on the bill Tuesday. If it passes, local farmers could see new restrictions on fertilizer or compost applications, said Sandy Menasha, a vegetable and potato specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. Other changes could require testing of irrigation water to ensure it doesn't contaminate crops with E. coli or other bacteria, she said.

The House passed a stricter version of the legislation in 2009. But the Senate version stalled, in part because of objections from local food advocates and small farmers. Now  the two versions must  be reconciled, or the House could choose to adopt the Senate version.

Last week, the Senate agreed to include an amendment that would exempt certain farms with annual sales of less than $500,000. Such farms that sell directly to consumers within 275 miles or sell products within their own state would only be bound by state and local regulations, although the FDA still would oversee small producers linked to outbreaks of food-borne illness.

Nolan and Joseph Gergela of the Long Island Farm Bureau said they were concerned many local farms would not qualify for the exemption. Another amendment the Senate agreed to would provide grants to help such farmers meet new standards, said Bethany Lesser, spokeswoman for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

With an update from The Associated Press


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