Date: Apr 01, 2013
April 2013 - WG Tool Box to Aid Growers with Data

During the past decade, many public health, consumer and even agricultural advocates have been calling on government to “protect the public health” by passing legislation, creating new rules and regulations and taking other actions to institute stronger command and control over food safety by the federal government.

Today, almost a decade after Western Growers and other produce organizations were asked by the Food and Drug Administration to step up and take the lead in advancing food safety, particularly as it related to a few commodities that had a disproportionate share of outbreaks, we are in a situation where the majority of the fresh produce grown in the United States is done so with rigorous industry-driven food safety programs in place.  Only a small volume of fruits and vegetables are produced with no food safety protocols in place.  Combine this with the fact that many buyers are looking for product closer to home and placing an emphasis on where the product comes from.  In recent times, both outbreaks and recalls have revealed that the location of the source has actually trumped the requirement for food safety in the minds of some buyers.

Growers and handlers in California and Arizona have worked aggressively to move the ball forward in the food safety arena and we have watched as our efforts have been dismissed, discounted or marginalized in the public debate.  And even worse, our leadership in developing food safety standards has been ignored by those who subscribe to the theory that contamination is only an issue when the supply and distribution chain is longer and more complex and that it is acceptable for buyers to source from suppliers in close proximity with no regard to preventive programs.

This system, which is failing to make food safety the priority specification in a produce transaction, continues to harm the reputation of many fresh produce commodities as well as the large and small, organic and conventional growers that do adhere to strict food safety standards.  In addition, this system of buyer neglect continues to erode consumer confidence in select commodities as well as our industry.  The continuing failures feed the call for government oversight on the fresh produce industry.

The most recent example of this is the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2010, which is arguably the most comprehensive update of federal food safety law since the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.  The corresponding new regulations that were proposed in January of this year to establish standards for growing and handling of fresh produce as well as preventive controls in packing and processing facility demonstrate government’s overarching concern in this area.  This new law and its companion regulations have been touted as the single most important step in improving food safety across the country and the discussions around this law have created the perception that recalls and outbreaks will be greatly reduced as a result of federal control.

What is in these new rules, regulations and laws that will make people safer across the U.S. and beyond?

In my opinion, VERY LITTLE!

Historically, the federal government follows industry actions, learning, processes and protocols, and then regulators write guidance and regulation to codify industry programs usually several years after industry has already worked to develop best practices.  The new Produce and Preventive Controls rules are no exception.  The problem is that these new rules do not get at the crux of the problem – which is that every supplier and every buyer must make food safety THE priority in terms of any produce transaction.

Look at the some of the linchpin issues associated with these new laws.  Some commodities are “covered” while some are not.  Some growers must adhere to the standards while some will have a “qualified exemption.”  The standards have now been proposed, but no corresponding mechanism of verification has been moved forward in conjunction with these standards.  Industry has been given a program where the “best in class” will be subject to regulations and many that should be striving to improve their programs will have no real requirements to do so.  Those parties in the supply chain in a position to exercise real control are not held liable for the failure to do so.

As a food safety practitioner, this is disturbing to me — because we now have a proposed system that results in a situation where some will have a food safety program and some will not.  It focuses regulation on the growers and handlers that have implemented preventive programs and sets up a debate about why certain commodities should be outside the scope of the rule.  In short, it belies our longstanding mantra of “pathogens know no boundaries” — they don’t discriminate between large and small, organic or conventional, raw or processed etc.  More troubling is that the media, consumer advocates and others who have frenzied for a new food safety law for the last few years have created a public expectation that food safety events (recalls, outbreaks, illnesses etc.) will be a thing of the past because of this law.

At a recent event, I went on record to say that government and industry must work together to advance food safety.  Industry will make the advances and establish the protocols to ensure that strong preventive food safety programs are in place.  Government should hold us accountable to use the best science and preventive practice as well as verify that preventive programs are followed.  But…and this is a big BUT…this should not stop with the supplier.  The verification and best practices need to be carried through the supply chain no matter how long or short it may be.

Only this strong collaboration to ensure food safety is first all the time and every time will result in us collectively moving the ball down the court.

WG Staff Contact

Hank Giclas
Sr. Vice President, Strategic Planning, Science & Technology

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