Shortening the wait for test results on random fruit and vegetable sampling at the Mexican border is high on the policy priority list for the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.
Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Nogales, Ariz.-based association, is on a joint industry and Food and Drug Administration committee examining the procedures for taking and processing samples.
“There have been issues with those test results taking far too long,” Jungmeyer said.
“It should take two to three days, but sometimes it takes 10 or 14 (days) and the produce has gone bad or heavily degraded by then. It can be tens of thousands of dollars in losses, even $40,000 a truckload for a commodity in a hot market.”
“We want it to work in a time frame that matches the perishability rate of the product,” said Allison Moore, communications director for the association.
“You don’t want to wait in line behind something like peanut butter. If the point of sampling is to monitor the entire food system for anomalies, you want the FDA processing those samples efficiently into their system.”
Samples are typically placed in a pouch and express mailed to a lab.
The FDA also operates mobile labs. The trade association has advocated for more of those to be placed in Nogales during the peak winter season.
The FPAA is also pushing for what it considers fairer testing.
“From FDA, there’s not a random sampling of domestic produce and one could argue that’s not really proportionate,” Jungmeyer said.
“The USDA has its Microbiological Data Program, which is losing its funding, but that’s a separate issue from what FDA does. It does some random tests at wholesalers, terminal markets and other places down the chain. That’s good as far as safety goes, but in that case they might be sampling an imported product that’s already been tested at the border.”
Like the broader industry, Fresh Produce Association of the Americas eagerly awaits the FDA’s proposed produce safety rule, which the agency announced it will publish sometime in early 2012.
“When it comes out, we’ll be looking to make sure imports are treated the same as domestic produce,” Jungmeyer said.
“The main thing is foreign supplier verification, the idea that the importer of record is checking to ensure the grower has the right food safety in place. We want to make sure there’s no unintended consequences from that. The devil is in the details.”
As it did in the fall, FPAA expects to convene a group of importers in the spring to discuss the upcoming rule.
“We’ll go over the details with a fine-toothed comb and see if anything gives us pause, and we’ll prepare another set of comments,” Jungmeyer said.
“This year and next are crucial in terms of how the Food Safety Modernization Act comes together, and how the industry learns from and reacts to it,” he said.
“In some ways, it’s a sea change. These are also things growers are already doing, but sometimes having the FDA recognize what growers are already doing and saying that’s how it ought to be done are two different things.”