Produce safety rule comes under scrutiny at Ag Outlook Forum

02/22/2013 10:36:00 AM
Tom Karst

Tom KarstThe USDA's Agricultural Outlook Conference includes scrutiny of the Food and Drug Administration's produce safety rule. Panelists at the Feb. 21 session include Hilary Thesmar (from left), vice president of food safety programs at the Food Marketing Institute; Hank Giclas, senior vice president of strategic planning, science and technology for Western Growers; and Sarah Klein, senior staff attorney for the Food Safety Program for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Food and Drug Administration’s recently released produce safety rule has been welcomed by food safety advocates, growers and retailers, but that warm reception doesn’t spare the regulation from a dose constructive criticism.

At the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2013 Agricultural Outlook Forum on Feb. 21, speakers representing consumers, growers and retailers addressed the produce safety rule and ongoing industry efforts to reduce the risk of pathogens on produce.

Sarah Klein, senior staff attorney for the Food Safety Program for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the group has some “significant concerns” about the proposed law.

Those concerns include:

* The FDA’s eventual compliance efforts;

* The exemption of some commodities;

* Standards that exempt some growers;

* Provisions related to farm worker hygiene;

* The timetable for the law’s implementation; and

* Lack of a mandate for a written hazard analysis,

The culture of putting food safety first in transactions in the supply chain should be elevated and perhaps be even marketed to consumers, said Hank Giclas, senior vice president of strategic planning, science and technology for Western Growers, Irvine, Calif.

“One of the things we can do to advance food safety is make it transparent, make it visible,” he said.

Giclas said Western Growers wants to ensure accountability past the supplier, targeting retailers and other buyers.

“We’re going to have to get buyers and others in the supply chain to change the way they do business,” he said.

Hilary Thesmar, vice president of food safety programs for the Food Marketing Institute, Arlington, Va., outlined initiatives by retailers to shape best practices for produce safety at the grower, retail and consumer level.

She said FMI is also troubled by exemptions in the proposed rule. Exemptions create an uneven playing field and puts more of a burden on retailers, Thesmar said.

With input from university researchers and produce trade groups, she said FMI is developing a food safety document for retailers who buy from small local growers, which will also spell out produce handling practices at retail.

Giclas said Western Growers is focusing on requirements for water testing intervals.

“Is that really an effective expenditure of resources?” he said.

He also said the produce safety regulation must be able to evolve over time with ongoing research, he said.

Giclas said he hopes collaboration with government and growers continue in the form of food safety-focused marketing agreements and marketing orders.

The Center for Produce Safety at the University of California-Davis has successfully brought together industry, government and academic partners for needed produce safety research, Giclas said.

He also mentioned food safety plans by growers of California and Arizona leafy greens, California cantaloupess, and Florida and California tomatoes. Those groups have adopted industry-led preventive practices, funded by growers and verified by state and federal inspectors.

Responding to a question about the 2012 demise of the USDA’s Microbiological Data Program, Giclas said the program didn’t deliver on its initial promise for helpful research.

“The produce industry was hopeful for a better understanding of where things were breaking down in the supply chain, but we never got that out of the program,” he said.

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