Amid Salmonella Case, Food Industry Seems Set to Back Greater Regulation
(New York Times)
By BINA VENKATARAMAN
Food industry leaders set to appear Thursday before a House committee say they will testify about what they view as mistakes in the federal response to the continuing salmonella outbreak as well as fundamental failures in the nation’s food safety system.
At the same time, however, several food safety experts say, industry leaders are also questioning whether the weak produce-tracking rules that many of them once championed are more a curse than a blessing. As they tally the financial losses from the largest food-borne outbreak of illness in the last decade, produce businesses now show signs of embracing broader regulations for traceability.
“I think that now the industry is realizing based on this outbreak that we need to have the ability to trace back so we can segregate where the problem is and not devastate the entire industry,” said Mike Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.
Produce industry leaders scheduled to appear at the House hearing, before the Energy and Commerce Committee, said they would call for government agencies to divulge details of initial studies that linked the salmonella outbreak to raw tomatoes.
After six weeks, the Food and Drug Administration on July 17
lifted a warning against eating certain raw tomatoes. About that time, the
agency discovered that jalapeño peppers grown in
The United Fresh Produce Association estimates that the tomato industry lost more than $100 million while the warning was in effect. Industry leaders have said they hope to get compensation from Congress to make up for losses, and those who are to appear Thursday said they also planned to demand a stricter burden of proof before the F.D.A. blames a particular food product for any future outbreak.
“More important than the financial loss is the loss of consumer confidence,” said Kathy Means, vice president for government relations at the Produce Marketing Association. “This has long-term effects for the industry.”
One former F.D.A. official, Michael Taylor, now a professor
“This outbreak has had a really serious effect on the industry,” Mr. Taylor said. “The industry is probably receptive to public policy changes that they wouldn’t have considered before.”
Representative Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who is a member of the House committee, said in a telephone interview Wednesday, “I think the bigger players in the industry will all be coming in and saying, ‘We want regulation,’ which is a change.”
While tomatoes may not have been the culprit, Mr. Stupak said, this outbreak still shows the industry’s inability to identify quickly all the places where contaminated produce has been distributed.
Food safety experts say a better system for tracking food throughout the supply chain could help identify the source of outbreaks sooner, as well as quickly eliminate regions and products that are mistakenly suspected of being the source.
Current rules, adopted under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, require that produce processors and distributors keep track of where food goes and comes from, but only one step forward and one step back in the supply chain.
Those rules do not apply to farms or restaurants. And the records can be kept on paper and in a multitude of formats, making the tracing of fresh produce, which has a short shelf life, a cumbersome task, said Dr. David Acheson, the F.D.A.’s associate commissioner for foods.
“What a faster system would have done,” he said, “is allowed us to trace back more quickly to get into the distribution centers and onto farms, to eliminate suspected areas quickly.”
Food industry leaders said trace-back systems had worked in this outbreak; it was just that tomatoes were the wrong target, they said. Still, they are pushing an initiative under which produce companies would voluntarily track fresh produce globally using identification tags that could be scanned into computer systems.
In telephone interviews, several leaders said that as long as the F.D.A. did not dictate the specific type of technology, they would not object if the agency mandated that “high-risk commodities” — fresh produce particularly susceptible to bacterial contamination, like tomatoes — be traceable within a certain time period back to the farm of origin.
“If there are holes in the system and the only way of addressing those is regulation, then we are not opposed to that,” said Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association also supports regulation that would “level the playing field” so that producers with toothless safety standards or trace-back systems are forced to reform, said Robert E. Brackett, a senior vice president of the association and onetime F.D.A. official.
Tim Hammonds, president of the Food Marketing Institute, said current regulations did not go far enough because they did not require restaurants or farmers to track fresh produce.
“It’s the government’s job here to say that industry needs to develop an effective trace-back system,” Mr. Hammonds said, “and then hold the industry accountable without trying to define exactly how it’s done.” 7-31-08
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