SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas — Immigration has been the hot topic at Texas Produce Conventions in recent years, but food safety and traceability issues trumped it this year, as growers and importers await food safety legislation from Congress, Food and Drug Administration regulations, and input from the Produce Traceability Initiative.

“Everyone is scrambling to put together programs and wrestling with what’s happening both legislatively and with the FDA,” Texas Produce Association president John McClung said.

The convention, Aug. 11-13, attracted about 350 people, McClung said.

Michelle Smith, senior policy analyst with the Food and Drug Administration, told convention attendees Aug. 12 that the agency’s preventive food safety controls for fresh produce will not be published this year as originally intended. The FDA’s next move is to consider more than 700 comments received from the industry and other sources following the recently ended public comment period, as well as testimony from hearings in 13 states.

“It’s a massive effort to sort through every comment, and each comment has a host of issues,” said Smith, who replaced FDA deputy commissioner for foods Michael Taylor as a speaker due to a schedule conflict.

The input is critical, she said, because the agency wants to be more than “well intentioned,” but also “well informed.”

Despite prodding from several audience members, Smith said she was unable to pinpoint when the FDA’s food safety for fresh produce guidelines will be announced.

The regulations are not intended to mandate Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point systems at the farm level, but they will be risk-based, scale-appropriate and reflect as much as possible current best practices.

“This will be one of the most technically challenging (initiatives) the FDA has embarked upon,” because of the completely distinct specialty crops to be covered by the regulations, Smith said.

An Aug. 12 food safety panel looked at the issue from several angles, including traceability, new regulations and how to use food safety messages in interacting with consumers.

Dan’l Mackey Almy, president of DMA Solutions, Dallas, said food safety programs are customized best practices, and they provide opportunities for companies to differentiate themselves. But, she said, avoid playing those against competitors’ programs, which can confuse buyers.

“I think it’s a slippery slope, for us going down” Mackey Almy said. “ … You don’t want to walk into a retail place and feel it is less safe than another one.”

Deputy Texas Agriculture Commissioner Drew DeBerry, who moderated the panel, said the state has paid more than $500,000 on food safety programs since 2007, including training programs through the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.

One in seven jobs in Texas is agricultural related, he said.

“There’s a reason Texas is involved in so many national policy debates,” DeBerry said.

McClung said that although food safety is a pressing concern for Texas growers and shippers, the Rio Grande Valley’s proximity to Mexico makes immigration issues important. The availability of labor, and escalating drug-related violence in Mexico’s border states, was a common theme of conversation at the convention.

“Immigration reform remains an issue of great interest to us, and border security remains an issue,” McClung said. “As you know, about 60% of what Texas sells to the rest of the country is Mexican imports not, so the situation in Mexico is of ongoing interest to us.”

Texas Produce Convention focuses on food safety

Chris Koger

A panel at the Texas Produce Convention Aug. 12 addresses several food safety issues, from traceability to marketing and government regulation. Participants are moderator Drew DeBerry (from left), Texas deputy commissioner of agriculture, David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, Jeff Case, senior director of governmental affairs for CropLife America, Dan Vache, vice president of supply chain management for United Fresh, and Dan'l Mackey Almy, president of DMA Solutions.