National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

As I send a birthday “shout out” to my son Brian today, I am checking in from Washington, D.C., in the midst of reporting from the USDA’s 2013 Agricultural Outlook Forum.

I got to Washington D.C. on Wednesday, leaving on the eve of the big snow storm that walloped the city and kept nearly everyone at home Thursday (including The Packer staff). I had time to check in with the United Fresh Produce Association’s Lorelei DiSogra, Robert Guenther and Julie Manes, in addition to a visit with Frank Gasperini of the National Council of Agricultural Employers. I also checked in with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Chuck Parrott for an informal chat.

Several produce personalities are on hand at the USDA Ag Outlook show, including the PMA’s Kathy Means, Joel Nelsen of California Citrus Mutual and Dennis Nuxoll of Western Growers.

Talk of sequestration has been fairly big at the event, with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack showing his irritation with members of Congress who have pestered him seeking a hedge around their pet programs from the effects of the automatic budget cuts.

“Rather than write letters, how about writing a bill?” Vilsack said in a press conference at the event.

While nearly every economic forecast at the event was geared toward grains, livestock, sugar and cotton, there was some attention to produce. A produce and food safety session was held the afternoon of Feb. 21.

As I reviewed my notes of the session, it struck me that Hank Giclas of Western Growers stressed the concept of marketing food safety to consumers. Growers who are going through the expense of strict adherence to enforceable food safety standards want buyers to place a higher priority on supplier compliance with food safety standards.

It is clear that consumer-oriented groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest would like the produce rule to be even more expensive to implement than the FDA’s proposal would.

While generally giving a thumbs up to the produce safety rule, Sarah Klein, senior staff attorney, food safety program for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the group has a few points of difference with the FDA’s proposal.

In her remarks, Klein said the FDA’s produce safety proposed rule took an integrated approach to risk, evaluating agricultural practices applied to crops, with exemptions for lowest risk produce – produce commonly cooked before consumed. That integrated approach, she said, was better than taking a commodity-specific approach to produce safety based on outbreak data.

“Most likely, the integrated approach is the best option, but we have some concerns,” she said. For one thing, she said that FDA shouldn’t list exempted commodities in the produce safety rule, “etched in regulatory stone.”

Instead, she said the FDA should consider naming exempted commodities in a guidance document, which she said could be more easily updated over time as warranted.

In particular, Klein said the Center for Science in the Public Interest believes some commodities shouldn’t be on the exempted list.

For example, she said kale has traditionally been cooked but new food trends see it being consumed raw. Other items that shouldn’t be exempt, she said, include potatoes and beets. It is not uncommon for beets to be cut up and consumed raw, and Klein said should not be exempt because outbreak data shows they are a significant source of cross contamination down the supply chain..

Other aspects of the produce safety rule that CSPI found wanting include qualified exemption for farmers, she said. Klein said FDA should make clear that inspectors will check records to ensure growers indeed are exempt. “FDA should state outright that failure to have records to confirm you are a qualified exemption creates the presumption you are not qualified,” she said.

Klein said that CSPI believes that growers at the very least should have a written hazard analysis. That’s not required by proposed produce safety rule. She said that requirement would make sure growers would consider hazards that confront their individual operations, and would provide FDA inspectors a roadmap to follow when checking compliance.

Another area where CSPI wants more clarification is the rule’s allowance for alternative methods in place of water testing and standards for use of compost, among other practices. She said the produce safety rule should have defined triggers for the withdrawal on the acceptability of the alternatives. “If the alternative is connected to a hazard or an outbreak, the alternative method should be disallowed,” she said.

The push and pull over the rule will heat up, as industry folks like Joel Nelsen will fight for their respective industries every step of the way to make the rule less burdensome. In other words, game on.