GROTON, Conn. — Concerns over the Food Safety Modernization Act dominated discussion at a Sept. 17-18 conference co-sponsored by the Eastern Produce Council and the New England Produce Council.
This was the first conference staged by the councils, and it drew about 130 attendees, reported Paul Kneeland, president of the Short Hills, N.J.-based Eastern Produce Council and vice president of produce and floral for the Parsippany, N.J.-based Kings Super Markets.
Bob McGowan, president of the Burlington, Mass.-based New England Produce Council and a partner in Wellesley, Mass.-based Northeast Produce Sales LLC, concurred on the attendance and said it was a great turnout.
The first salvos in the food safety act discussion came the afternoon of Sept. 17 when Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, outlined a list of federal issues important to the produce industry.
With immigration reform and nutrition program funding in the farm bill, the produce industry has an unprecedented burden of issues facing it on Capitol Hill. Stenzel then moderated a discussion between the audience and two panel members, Doug Fisher, New Jersey secretary of agriculture, and Steven Reviczky, Connecticut agriculture commissioner.
The Food and Drug Administration has extended the comment period of the proposed rules for implementing the food safety act. Besides the exemption for smaller operations, Stenzel listed other concerns with the proposed rules, including water standards arbitrarily applied to commodities across the board; applying the same rules to packinghouses and warehouses as food manufacturing facilities; and rules that are too stringent for verifying that foreign suppliers are properly implementing the law.
After describing what he called an “agricultural renaissance” in his state with more smaller produce-growing operations, Reviczky said eliminating the smaller operation exemption could stifle the growth.
“Just the record keeping alone — I don’t know how a family farm could possible keep track of everything they are supposed to keep track of,” Reviczky said. Fisher echoed those concerns. Both said the rules could force growers to consolidate to deal with the burden.
The debate resumed the morning of Sept. 18, when Bob Whitaker, chief scientific officer for Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, told the audience “we have a lot of people with their head in the sand” as far as food safety is concerned.
They do not take responsibility and are under pressure to make sales and think tools such as audits amount to a food safety program, he said. He also blamed buyers who are inconsistent in their commitment to food safety, giving breaks for locally grown produce growers or other groups.
The industry is facing a new reality — not just with the government’s expanded role but also with the widening threat of lawsuits that come earlier in a crisis, are more numerous and threaten a wider swath of the industry, including retailers as well as grower-shippers.
“This all comes down to accepting change,” Whitaker said.
Early in the process
Whitaker’s presentation was followed by Jim Gorny, PMA’s vice president of food safety and technology, giving an overview of the food safety act. November brings a close to the FDA’s comment period on four proposed rules:
- standards for growing, harvesting, packing and holding Produce;
- preventive controls;
- third-party auditor accreditation; and
- foreign supplier verification programs.
After the comment period, rules will be amended and published in the Federal Register and then phased in over several years.
“We are very early in this process,” Gorny said.
Gorny said PMA is concerned about arguments to exempt some commodities based on an absence of reported illnesses associated with a commodity.
PMA holds that rules should be based on practices instead of reporting, which may not cover the bases.
Exemptions for items that are usually cooked, such as potatoes and sweet potatoes, also concern PMA because tastes change.
As far as produce importers are concerned, PMA encourages FDA to expedite the process for countries with comparable standards and protocols, Gorny said. Gorny also said the FDA should make a distinction between a regulatory audit and a consulting audit.
In all cases, the proposed rules require the FDA to be notified of problems. However, this could discourage companies from using audits to assess their operations and devising food safety plans.
Once PMA’s scientists laid out the groundwork, Bryan Silbermann, PMA president and CEO, led a discussion with a panel that included Nate Sprague, produce merchandising manager for Hannford Bros., Portland, Maine, and Vic Salvalnello, director of produce and floral for retailer-owned co-op Allegiance Retail Services, Iselin, N.J.
The small farm exemptions raised concerns of both retail representatives.
“The exemption piece is a little bit of a concern, and we’re doing all we can do to get everyone on board,” Sprague said.
Salvanello said he is bothered by unfair competition of farmers markets and that do not refrigerate their products and also pay little or no rent and have no salaries to cover.
“The consumer is ignoring good common sense in buying products they wouldn’t accept in a supermarket,” Salvanello said.
Fair or not, consumers often think smaller produce growers have safer food than larger operations, said Henry Talmadge, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, Windsor. In addition, problems at smaller operations cause smaller-scale problems than large companies.
While the changes can be daunting, when addressed and broken down to what’s appropriate for an organization, it is manageable, Whitaker said.
“Once you get people over the hump, they see it’s not so hard,” Whitaker said.
John Alva, president of Rockhedge Herb Farms, said that had been his experience.
“Most farms can follow these rules, and if they don’t, they’re not being very safe,” Alva said.