Government oversight of food safety is “vital” to the produce industry, and full implementation and funding of the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) should help to allay food safety concerns, panelists said at USDA’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum last week.

Sarah A. Klein, senior staff attorney for the Food Safety Program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the new rules are needed to minimize the number of foodborne illnesses.

“Outbreaks erode confidence and over time reinforces consumer safety concerns,” Klein said. “Safety during production is the responsibility of the producer, but government oversight is vital.”

The 2008 salmonella scare with tomatoes, Klein said, had a dramatic effect on that industry even though itturned out to be false. She said a survey found one-third of consumers stopped eating tomatoes, while 50 percent were unable to tell what tomatoes were allegedly affected.And, she said, one year later, 23 percent of consumers were still not eating tomatoes.

“Consumers don’t differentiate between similar produce items when responding to outbreaks,” Klein said.

The same survey, she said, found that 41 percent of consumers hold companies that wash and package produce responsible for its food safety. She said 41 percent of consumers also holdgovernment agencies responsible, and 36 percent place the onus on food growers.

Klein said she has been waiting for “a long time” for the FSMA rules to be promulgated.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally released early last month two FSMA-related rules that the agency says will help prevent foodborne illnesses. The rules are the result of a two-year review process mandated by the FSMA.

These rules represent “significant advances to better protect the public health,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. She stressed the rules’ focus on preventative measures: “While FDA responds quickly and effectively to outbreaks,” Hamberg said, “we really need to do more than react after the fact.”

The first rule, which will primarily affect farmers, proposes a number of safety standards for the production of fruits and vegetables.

The second rule will require food producers to “develop a formal plan for preventing their food products from causing foodborne illnesses,” according to an FDA press release. Producers will also have to create contingency plans for correcting any problems that arise during the manufacturing process.

Both rules are open for comment for the next 120 days.

“Overall, the rules are good,” Klein said, but added that her group has been looking at the rules’ definition of “readily-accessible” toilets, and what that may mean for farm workers who are supposed to receive toilet access every three hours.

“Hygiene is an issue of both human rights and food safety,” she said.

Hank Giclas, senior vice president of strategic planning, science, and technology for the Western Growers Association, said he was not sure if he would call the FSMA rules “good,” but noted that the rules were expected by the industry.

“It shouldn’t be a heavy lift to implement,” Giclas said. “Most of the rules have been in company documents for a while.”

Giclas said some the provisions might be harder to implement, including one dealing with water testing.

Hilary Thesmar, vice president of food safety programs at the Food Marketing Institute, said her group is concerned about an exemption for “rarely consumed raw” products.

“They figure it will get cooked as the final kill act [to rid the product of viruses],” she said.

Also, Nancy Donley, spokesperson for STOP Foodborne Illness, said her group was looking at the rules’ definition of “adulterated” and is advocating a declaration of all e.coli strains as “adulterants.”



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