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Congress begins new look at food-safety legislation

by Joan Murphy | March 11, 2009
WASHINGTON -- When Congress rewrites food-safety legislation, it must not forget to revamp how the government responds to foodborne outbreaks, United Fresh Produce Association President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Stenzel said March 11 during a congressional hearing.

In the first congressional hearing on the topic, the three-hour hearing featured a panel of five experts, who answered questions about how to fix the nation's food-safety laws.

"Over the next few months, the Energy and Commerce Committee will move a strong food-safety bill," said committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA). Another hearing on food safety is planned for March 19, assuring that the issue will remain on the front burner for the powerful House Energy & Commerce Committee.

Congressional interest in the issue is being fueled by the ongoing peanut product scare that so far has caused a recall of more than 3,000 products, sickened nearly 700 people and may be responsible for nine deaths.

People have "new doubts and sometimes fears about produce," despite the fact that there's been few food-safety problems when Americans are consuming more than 1 billion servings of fresh produce each day, said Mr. Stenzel.

Congress should enact a commodity-specific approach to produce safety that establishes regulations for production, handling and distribution for the most risky varieties, he said, adding that the standards must be consistently applied no matter where the commodity is grown.

But Congress also should fix the current outbreak response system that leaves no one in charge of outbreak investigations, said Mr. Stenzel. Since the Salmonella probe associated with hot peppers that tainted the tomato industry, "the peanut paste fiasco has only provided more fuel to my comments, unfortunately this time affecting thousands more consumers and tearing down another whole industry."

All food manufacturers should be required to conduct risk evaluations and corrective actions, and the Food & Drug Administration should be able to review these plans during inspections, said Jim Lugg, a former quality- assurance official with Fresh Express and a consultant for Chiquita Brands, who also testified at the hearing.

Food safety was the focus of another March 11 congressional hearing where the panel probed the impact that widespread recalls can have on small businesses.

"When lax regulatory oversight ignores problems at facilities like those owned by [the Peanut Corp. of America], consumers' safety is put at risk and we end up with massive product recalls," said Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-PA), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Regulations & Healthcare, another committee that held a hearing on food safety.

"Small businesses, like restaurants, grocers and farmers, who have strong safety records, end up being punished through a loss in consumer sales as well as the burden of clearing tainted product out of their inventory," she said.

"We need to reform the food-safety system to protect consumers and help small businesses that too often are left holding the bag due to the irresponsible actions of a bad actor like PCA," she added.