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Senate farm bill includes food safety study for specialty crop growers

California fruit and vegetable growers might get a chance to insure themselves against a future food safety scare, under an evolving Senate farm bill poised for passage late Wednesday or sometime Thursday.

Feeling burned by past episodes involving tainted spinach, cantaloupe and tomatoes, the growers secured a study of whether a new type of insurance coverage could protect them against losses due to a “contamination concern.” Senators agreed to the insurance study amidst a flurry of amendments to a work-in-progress that began at 1,010 pages.

“When a food safety recall occurs…consumers stop purchasing the product regardless of what farm the food came from,” Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said. “When this happens, producers suffer major financial losses because of a recall they did not cause.”

Feinstein’s amendment accepted by voice vote Tuesday was one of nearly 300 farm bill amendments proposed by lawmakers trying to reshape a bill that has a 10-year price tag of $969 billion. Senate leaders finally pared the amendment list down to 73, leading to a rapid-fire set of quick votes and two-minute debates Tuesday and Wednesday, with mixed results for California.

Feinstein, for instance, didn’t get the go-ahead for an amendment that would have imposed national standards for housing egg-laying hens. Other livestock groups feared a precedent would be set by the compromise between the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States. Feinstein and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, though, won approval for retaining a $37.5 million air quality program that’s helped replace old diesel tractor engines in the state’s polluted Central Valley.

On Wednesday, the Senate also rejected by a 30-69 vote an amendment to trim the $200 million-a-year Market Access Program that regularly funds overseas advertising and promotions by groups such as the California Walnut Commission and the California Prune Board. In 2011, California-based farm groups received at least $29 million from the program.

The underlying farm bill would eliminate direct payments for commodities such as cotton, rice and wheat, and puts in place a new insurance program covering certain losses. It would consolidate some other programs and tighten subsidy payment limits, but would leave intact much of what self-styled reformers have unsuccessfully sought to change for years.

Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, for instance, failed with his effort to let farmers opt out of paying fees into mandatory check-off promotion programs that have funded such campaigns as “The Incredible Edible Egg” and “Got Milk?” DeMint’s amendment got walloped by a 20-79 margin.

“The members support what we are doing,” Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said Wednesday.

Farm-state lawmakers likewise brushed off an amendment by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would have cut crop insurance subsidies and restored $4.5 billion for food stamps, called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Nutrition and food stamp programs account for 80 percent of the bill’s total cost. Crop insurance accounts for about 10 percent and commodity subsidies account for 5 percent of the total. Subsidies, though, attract most of the debate, as when Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky failed by a 15-84 vote margin to ban subsidies for farmers making more than $250,000 a year.

“What do Scottie Pippen, Larry Flynt and David Rockefeller have in common?” Paul asked rhetorically. “The answer would be that besides being very rich, they have all gotten farm subsidies in the past. I think this could change.”

California’s rice, cotton, wheat and corn producers collected some $172 million in subsidies in 2010, according to data compiled by the Environmental Working Group. The state’s dominant fruit and vegetable producers do not receive direct subsidies, but they do have a big stake in some of the farm bill’s provisions.

The Senate’s bill, for instance, includes $200 million over five years for a renewed Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

The Senate bill also renews a Specialty Crop Block Grant program at $70 million a year. California currently receives about $18 million annually from this program, with recent projects ranging from a University of California at Davis study of pistachio contamination to a media blitz promoting the state’s navel oranges.

The Senate bill will have to be reconciled with a still-unwritten House bill.

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