House passes bill to widen FDA role in food safety

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Issue Date: August 5, 2009

By Christine Souza
Assistant Editor

Legislation to provide the U.S. Food and Drug Administration with greater authority and resources to address food safety issues passed the House of Representatives last week.

H.R. 2749 gives FDA the authority to conduct more frequent inspections, order recalls and tell companies how to keep records to ensure that products are traced more easily. Most food companies would also be required to register with the FDA and pay an annual fee for each of their facilities.

Josh Rolph, director of congressional relations in the California Farm Bureau National Affairs and Research Division, said the bill evolved after a strong push by some members of Congress who wanted a very broad regulatory reach for FDA, including control over meat inspections currently held by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Rolph said ultimately a line was clearly drawn, excluding meat inspections and exempting grain crops. The focus was narrowed to what were considered "higher risk" commodities such as leafy greens, tomatoes and melons.

CFBF opposed the House bill, but Rolph said Farm Bureau will continue to work on the legislation as it proceeds through Congress, to make it less burdensome for farmers and ranchers.

"There are a lot of unkowns for farmers in the House bill. If we are going to operate under this new regulatory regime, we need to do it within reason and not create new regulatory burdens that really, in the end, don't have a true impact on improving the safety of our food beyond what we already do in California on a voluntary basis," he said. "Farmers are in the business of food safety. But this bill would force them to concentrate on paperwork, keeping farmers in the office, instead of in the field."

Rolph said food safety is a top concern, but said it is unclear if food borne illnesses will be reduced as a result of this bill, authored by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. The House passed H.R. 2749 by a vote of 283-142.

California Farm Bureau Federation director Benny Jefferson, who grows leafy greens and vegetables in Salinas, indicated that farmers in his growing region of California are "ahead of the game" regarding food safety.

"When it comes to food safety, we're there," Jefferson said. "Because the majority of us who grow leafy greens in Salinas have signed onto the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, we are well ahead of the rest of the world."

Jefferson hopes that as the Senate crafts its own food safety bill, it will focus on the entire food distribution system and not solely on farms. He would also like to see more traceability written into the bill, so that the farmer is not held accountable for a food borne illness that originated further along the supply chain.

One CFBF goal in the Senate legislation is to add language requiring FDA to compensate growers when actions taken by the agency lead to crop and market price losses. Last year, FDA wrongly identified fresh tomatoes as the source of a food borne illness.

"There should be some indemnification which compensates farmers for an erroneous decision," Jefferson said. "Remember what happened with the tomato industry? Hundreds of millions of dollars in losses occurred after the mention of a possible outbreak in fresh tomatoes from California, when the cause actually originated in peppers. That is what has all of us worried."

In another action to address food safety, the FDA proposed food safety guidance documents late last week for leafy greens, melons and tomatoes that cover the entire supply chain. The voluntary, commodity-specific recommendations were called for by President Obama's Food Safety Working Group. The guidance documents are intended to supplement existing FDA guidelines, including good agricultural practices, which were developed in 1998 to minimize microbial food safety hazards for fresh-cut fruits and vegetables.

Ed Beckman, president of California Tomato Farmers in Fresno, said his organization is gratified with the release of the guidance document for fresh tomatoes, which resulted from a partnership between the tomato sector and government.

"We've focused on the true risks that exist throughout the entire supply chain," Beckman said. "The recommendations that have come forth are based upon science and the best available risk analysis and we believe if you look at the FDA timeline, they are thinking about turning this into regulation within two years. We fully support that."

The guidance document, Beckman said, should exactly pinpoint where an outbreak has occurred.

"In the most recent outbreaks that were in fact associated with fresh tomatoes, the problem area was not at the grower and shipper level, but further up the distribution chain in fresh-cut processing," Beckman said. "We now have some very strong guidance from FDA that is reflective of where problems may have occurred in tomatoes in past years. It doesn't apply just to the farmer who oftentimes seems to be bearing the blame. This actually shows that the responsibility for food safety may begin on the farm, but it doesn't end on the farm."

But Joe Colace Jr. of Five Crowns Marketing, a grower-shipper of cantaloupes, honeydews and variety melons in Brawley, sees the guidance document for melons as being "over the top."

"U.S. melon producers are doing everything within the good agricultural practices set forth by the FDA. We implement much of what has already been stated, but we often suffer because of imports that have proven to contain micro-organisms," Colace said. "I'm very frustrated over what are potential regulations (for U.S. producers) that are really more in response to imports than domestic products."



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