(Dec. 10) The U.S. Food and Drug Administration should mandate good agricultural practices for produce growers and require traceability standards for the produce supply chain, members of the Senate Committee on Health and Education were told in a Dec. 4 hearing.

Cal Dooley, president of the Grocery Manufacturers/Food Products Association, Washington, D.C., called on Congress to provide FDA the authority to mandate that produce be grown following good agricultural practices.

“Rising consumption of fruits and vegetables, including ready-to-eat foods, reflects growing consumer demand for healthier food choices but also creates new food safety challenges that should be addressed through strong and enforceable produce safety standards which can be tailored to reflect differences among commodities,” he said during his testimony.

Dooley said his organization also supported increased frequency of facility inspections, provided that such inspections are based on scientific risk.

Meanwhile, Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the consumer group agrees with several aspects of the FDA’s Food Protection Plan — notably the call for the authority to mandate recalls — but believes more should be done.

“It is not enough to ask for new authority to mandate recalls but fail to ask for authority to require traceability standards and impose civil penalties so that recalls are effective,” she said.

In defending the administration’s Import Action Plan and Food Protection Plan, Michael Leavitt, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, told the committee that the FDA needs new resources and additional statuatory authority to fund the initiatives.

The United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., believes the FDA needs more staffing and resources to do its job, said David Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology.

“The industry needs a strong FDA to maintain consumer confidence,” he said. “If the FDA is perceived as weak, then consumers will look elsewhere, and that’s not good.”

One option could be mandatory GAPs, but Gombas said standards would have to take into account the difference between commodities and regions.

“The industry needs a single set of standards they can point to, that these are what FDA believes the industry should be doing,” he said.

However, Gombas noted United Fresh’s attorneys believe that FDA already has the statutory authority it needs to regulate produce safety.

On a related food safety note, Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on Dec. 5 introduced the Eat Safe Act of 2007. That legislation seeks additional funding for food-safety agencies and would mandate closer oversight of private labs that test imported foods.