The Tester amendment to the Food Safety Modernization Act exempts small-scale operations from the law’s “preventative control plan” mandates.

The law was designed to protect growers and processors that earn less than $500,000 a year from the costs associated with compliance.

The exemption remains a contentious issue in the produce industry.

“I believe if we’re going to continue to develop this food safety program so that it’s feasible for everybody, the industry has to become more involved in supporting the growers and the small farms,” said Don Edgar, operations manager of Princeton, Fla.-based New Limeco LLC.

It might be an opportunity for shippers and handlers to develop some type of “umbrella system” that would allow the small grower to be “somewhat covered” under a network of audits, Edgar said.

“The food safety audits for the grower, as far as harvesting and handling, are not that difficult and they’re not that expensive, so it’s somewhat convenient, as far as distribution/packing facilities are concerned,” he said.

Small growers realize that food safety has to be a top priority, said Richard Lee, compliance coordinator with the Leamington-based Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association.

“We have members that range from less than an acre to more than 150, and that 1-acre greenhouse grower has the potential to cause a food safety recall or issue (as much) as the 200-acre grower does,” Lee said.

There are ways to help smaller operations keep pace, said Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Plant City, Fla.-based Wish Farms andVirtualOne.

“We require all of our small growers to be audited on blueberries, and some have actually not continued on with us because of the cost, and others have found lower-cost solutions that are available through the department of agriculture,” he said.

Much of the difficulty — and cost — is related to administrative duties and paperwork, Wishnatzki said.

“A lot of farmers get overwhelmed by the volume that’s necessary, but ... once they get into it, can understand and can sort through what’s really required and what’s not and it can be more manageable,” he said.

Even if Congress doesn’t ultimately demand that smaller operations follow the same rules as the larger companies, the industry likely will find a way to make sure it gets done, said Hank Giclas, vice president for Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers.

“The marketplace will demand a certain set of standards for the industry that the government will not,” he said.