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Regulatory change for produce

The United States produce industry, the entire food production system, in fact, can look for increased emphasis on food safety from the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA with a focus on handlers.

“Regulatory change is likely from FDA within two years,” said Robert Keeney, with USDA. “A food safety initiative will be in play in the Obama administration.”

Keeney, speaking on a town hall meeting panel at the recent Texas Produce Association Conference in Austin, Texas, said mandatory regulations on leafy greens and other commodities will be coming and that USDA will work closely with FDA to develop the process.

“FDA will have enforcement authority,” Keeney said. A market agreement may be a key in new food safety precautions, he said. A market order would include arugula, cabbage, endive, lettuce, spinach and other products.

The agreement will take from one to two years and involve two steps, Keeney said. “First will be putting in an administrative committee and then developing good agricultural practices. Committees will hold seven hearings in September and October that will include agricultural interests, as well as consumers and environmental groups. The process also includes opportunities for written comments.

“We have to assure that we take into consideration various parts of the country when we develop good agricultural practices,” Keeney said. “California, for instance, has different practices and we must make certain that the agreement meets those specific requirements.”

He said the market agreement applies to handlers who sign the agreement. “It does not apply directly to growers but handlers who sign can only source from growers with GAPs in place that meet requirements of the agreement.”

Imports also are included in that handlers must import from growers with proper GAPs. He said audits will be part of the program.

“It’s a lengthy process,” Keeney said. “It’s important that we hear from industry.”

David Acheson, formerly with FDA, said the federal government is driven to change food safety practices. “That is happening.”

He said the peanut contamination issue last winter emphasized that even a small player can have “a devastating effect on the industry. The jalapeno issue several years ago also drove media attention. Those events feed consumers’ fears so they don’t trust the food supply.”

Acheson said the risk of death from consuming food is less than was the case 10 years ago. “It’s much less than 20 years ago.”

He said a food safety law will pass this year.

He also said FDA will be more proactive with increased resources, a $1 billion budget compared to $600 million previously.

He also discussed concern over food imports, especially from China. “Some say we should close the border to China.” He said the country of origin label regulations, COOL, “play a small role in food safety,” but do allow tracing back to the country where the food was grown.

He said traceability “is coming. It’s a contentious issue. A House bill that seems draconian “cleared the House quickly. Most likely we will see new rules for fresh produce.”

He said the industry should be involved in the process. “Stay informed. Build collaborations. Continue to focus attention on prevention. Use science and trade associations to find solutions. And use the social media markets, Facebook, Twitter, etc. It’s a powerful media and can quickly transmit misinformation.”

Acheson said the agricultural industry has three options and three outcomes as debate on new regulations take place. “Fight change and you will lose,” he said. “Watch, stay on the sidelines and hope to survive. Or lead it and the result will be prosperity.”

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