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The U.S. Farm Bill and Food Safety Modernization Act: What You Need to Know

Submitted by LilyMichelson on November 12, 2013

Photo Credit: Katie Harbath

As the end of the calendar year draws near, Washington legislators are rushing to pass two key laws that will have profound impacts on U.S food systems: the U.S. Farm bill and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). We’ve broken down the facts for you and provided some great resources to learn more about some of the ongoing debates occurring in Congress.

The U.S. Farm Bill

The largest debate of the current Farm Bill proposal stems from the nearly $40 billion in proposed cuts of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP), more commonly known as Food Stamps, over the course of 10 years. The House and Senate Agricultural Committees have reached a stand-still for compromise, with the Democratic-controlled Senate Agricultural Committee calling for a $4 billion reduction and the Republican House Committee pushing a $39 billion cut. These cuts are not to be confused with a pre-approved 5%  reduction ($11 billion) in SNAP spending that officially went into effect on November 1, 2013. The November 1 cuts were pre-approved as part of the 2009 economic stimulus law and are independent from the current farm bill debate.

While the SNAP debate continues,  rural agriculture workers are dealing with effects of a lapsed bill. The previous 5-year bill expired October 1, 2013 and leaves American farmers guessing on the future of farm policy The lack of certainty has forced farmers to spend money conservatively and question their futures if a deal is not met by January 1, 2014. If the 2013 bill is not signed, farm policy would automatically adhere to those dictated by the 1949 Farm bill.

In addition to the debate over SNAP funding, the Senate and House Committees remain divided over the Farm bill’s proposed food aid program. In recent years, U.S. standards for aid have been subject to intense criticism. The current Food for Peace system dictates shipping U.S.-grown commodities to countries in need. Critics argue that the process is costly, inefficient and can drastically disrupt the economy of the country-in-need by flooding the market with U.S. crops. In response to the criticism, the Senate Committee has drafted a revised system that creates a new local and regional purchase program and also places new restrictions on monetizing or selling food aid to raise cash for development projects. However, the House Committee’s bill maintains largely the status quo on food aid programs. Their version does not propose limits on monetization of food aid or include a local and regional purchase program.

To learn more about the proposed Farm bill, please consult the pages of both the House and Senate Committees:

House Committee on Agriculture

Senate Committee on Agriculture

The Food Safety Modernization Act

Another key piece of legislation is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). FSMA was signed into law in January 2011 by President Obama as a response to outbreaks of food-borne illnesses that sicken and kill thousands of Americans each year. The law represents a new effort by the FDA to regulate food safety and implement a preventative approach for combating food-borne illnesses before they spread. Because FSMA designs a revamped food safety system,  its implementation has been slow-going and subject to further revision. To read the key facts of the law, click here. To read the full text of the law, click here.

One stipulation generating debate is the effect the FSMA will have on American smallholder farmers. For farmers that make less than $500,000/year in annual gross sales and supply to commercial customers (restaurants, grocery stores, etc.), complying with FSMA could reduce profits by 4-6%. However, in certain situations, a small farm can claim a qualified exemption from the law if their business activity fulfills certain proposed modified requirements. This proposed legislation is key to ironing out the impact the FSMA will have on thousands of small family farms.

The FDA continues to request comments from the general public. If you would like to submit a comment on the proposed legislation, please click here to consult the dockets currently open.

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