I had the chance to chat Jan. 18 with David Gombas, United Fresh Produce Association senior vice president for food safety and technology.
3:00 p.m. Tom Karst: There were reports this week that the Obama Administration would like to be granted authority to combine federal agencies for better efficiencies, and there is speculation that the White House would like to combine USDA and FDA food safety authority into one agency. What do you think of that prospect?
3:01 p.m. David Gombas: The idea of a single food safety agency is not new. The last three administrations have kicked around the idea of a single food safety agency. The problem is, it won’t matter if you merge the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service with the Food and Drug Administration because they are operating under different laws. You would have to change the laws. There would be a lot of expensive changes other than just changing the business cards. I don’t know (combining the agencies) would make the food supply any safer. What’s happened in the last decade is the agencies talk to each other better than they have in the past because they don’t like getting criticized for not talking to each other. (Combining agencies) is still not going to fix anything because the front line food safety efforts in the U.S. are managed by state and local officials, who have nothing to do with FDA or FSIS. For FSIS, yes, when you go to a meat and poultry plant there is a inspector in there, not a state and local inspector. But for FDA and every other product out there, it is the state and local officials that are managing that. Merging FDA and FSIS is not going to change that at all.
3:04 p.m. Karst: Coming back from the Jan. 11 Center for Produce Safety cantaloupe food safety meeting in San Diego, do you have any reflections about it now, a little time removed from the meeting?
3:04 p.m. Gombas: It is clear to me that the industry needs to take another look at the cantaloupe guidance, which is what it was designed for in 2005. It needs to be updated. It was the first of the commodity-specific guidance documents and they did a great job for it being the first document. But since then we have learned a lot of things about how to write this kind of guidance, and it needs to be updated. The watermelons did this a couple of years ago, and they followed the tomato model. So I think that would be my recommendation is that yes, we need to get cantaloupe food safety experts and stakeholders together to look at the guidance and figure out how to write it better based on the other guidances out there.
3:05 p.m. Karst: It is kind of fascinating to me about the various opinions about industry accepting more regulation and oversight from government related to food safety. There is more a comfort level for accepting regulation now, isn’t there? The industry wants to be involved in trying to remedy what has gone wrong.
3:06 p.m. Gombas: The people you are talking to, the people at the meeting are primarily Californian. In California, the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement is looked on as a success. And there are a lot of parallels. LGMA was written in a hurry after the spinach and other E. coli outbreaks occurred that year. There was a strong sense of urgency in the industry and they all got together and wrote it quickly and then told everybody, “You have to do this.”
They put together a marketing agreement to enforce and they got the USDA and the California Department of Agriculture to be the auditors/enforcers of compliance. And that, they look as a success. It is arguable as to whether or not it is as successful as some like to think it is, because I think the folks at LGMA have still got an uphill battle with some of the buyers. You look at it, and for the time and what they needed to do, it was a success. So I think the cantaloupe industry, the folks who were actually calling for this, they looked at that and said we want to do the same thing.
3:07 p.m. Karst: The melon industry, like any fresh produce commodity, has a growing base that extends throughout the country. What will be the challenges in putting into place similar oversight/guidance throughout the country?
3:08 p.m. Gombas: This was brought up during the meeting, that the leafy greens industry in California all had very similar practices anyway. You are looking primarily Salinas and the desert, and practices are far more similar than they are different. I don’t know that that’s true for cantaloupes. I’ve heard all along that you have different handling, harvesting and growing practices in different regions. So that all has to be taken into consideration if you write a national, let along international guidance document. If they are going to do this quickly, I don’t know if you can do that quickly. You will have to call together a lot of individuals and they are all going to have to be open-minded in wanting to do this.
3:09 p.m. Karst: There was also talk of a steam/hot water approach to treating cantaloupe at the meeting. What do you know about that?
3:09 p.m. Gombas: A kill step, yes, That is one of the advantages for cantaloupe that most other commodities don’t have. The USDA several years ago developed and commercialized a hot water/steam system for surface sanitizing cantaloupes. And it is effective, it works. What it does for quality of the product, that’s a different question. I don’t have enough information on the quality aspects of (treated) cantaloupes. But the USDA believes it works and I know of at least one company that has used it for a while.