(March 7, PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) A short-term extension of the existing farm bill appeared likely on March 7, reported Cathy Enright, the vice president of government affairs in Western Growers’ Washington, D.C., office. While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., favored wrapping up talks by March 15, Enright said the most likely scenario is an extension until April 15.

As lawmakers sought to bridge differences of opinion over funding between Congress and the White House, they were reportedly close to dividing available money among the separate titles of the farm bill. Most observers expect Congress to have available about $10 billion over the 10-year budget baseline, resulting in some cuts to farm programs compared to the House and Senate bills.

In food safety-related news linked to the farm bill, Rebecca Spector, West Coast Director
of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Food Safety, criticized a provision in the House farm bill that gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service authority for food safety regulation in federal marketing orders.

Other groups that expressed opposition to the amendment included Consumers Union, the Center for Food Safety, and numerous organic and community farming organizations. Some small growers said virtually all of the problems relating to E. coli on leafy greens are linked to production of bagged salads, and argue that a marketing order approach would not be flexible enough.

Those critics claim the amendment could hurt consumer food safety protection, reduce profitability for small grower and cause harm to the environment.

“Marketing orders are price control and quality assurance programs, not food safety programs. AMS not only lacks food safety expertise, but, as the mission of AMS is to help promote and sell agricultural commodities, it would also have a distinct conflict of interest as a food safety oversight body,” Spector said in a news release from the group.

Enright said consumer group and grower objections to a food safety provision in the House version of the farm bill could be a moot point, since the USDA already has provisions in almond and pistachio marketing orders that regulate alfatoxins and salmonella.

“My understanding is that the USDA believes it has the authority already,” she said. A spokesman for the USDA AMS could not be reached for comment March 7.

What’s more, she said that Senate and House leaders are committed to creating language in the conference farm bill that takes into account the concerns raised by the Consumer Federation and other groups.

Enright said Western Growers supports creation of national marketing agreement for leafy green handlers. She noted there will be no language specific to a national leafy greens marketing agreement or marketing order in the farm bill.

USDA’s advance notice of proposed rulemaking on the issue of a national leafy greens marketing agreement was published Oct. 1 and received more than 3,000 comments, Enright said.

“USDA is now figuring out their next step, and Western Growers still believes a national agreement would be useful for the industry as a whole,” she said.