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FDA to release commodity-specific guidelines, write produce safety rules

by Joan Murphy | July 08, 2009
WASHINGTON -- By the end of the month, the government will issue commodity-specific guidelines for tomatoes, melons and leafy greens - just one of several new food safety initiatives announced July 7 by the Obama administration.

Top officials, including Vice President Joseph Biden, announced the findings of the Food Safety Working Group at a White House press conference. Created in March to advise President Obama, the group has been working on ways to improve food-safety regulation and coordination among the 13 agencies that regulate foods.

"Instead of spending their time trying to get kids to eat healthier food, too many parents and families are worrying about whether their food is safe in the first place," said Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack chaired the interagency Working Group.

"The administration's plan embraces several key recommendations advanced by United Fresh to help ensure that food-safety initiatives address produce industry priorities," said Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of the United Fresh Produce Association.

Specifically, three steps the administration is pledging to take to improve food safety are very consistent with the Produce Marketing Association's positions, said PMA President and CEO Bryan Silbermann, who attended the July 7 White House briefing.

First, the group said that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration would issue commodity-specific guidelines by the end of July to reduce microbial contamination for tomatoes, melons and leafy greens. Over the next two years, FDA will seek public comment to adopt these approaches into regulation.

"We've been calling on FDA to do this for some time," Mr. Silbermann told The Produce News.

"With this rule, consumers can have greater confidence in their fresh fruits and vegetables, and growers and producers will have a uniform and science- based road map on safety standards," said Jim O'Hara, director of the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University.

Second, FDA pledged to issue guidelines to the food industry in the next three months to help the industry establish product-tracing systems that would improve detection of contaminated foods.

"We've spent a lot of time reaching out to the government" and educating officials on the Produce Traceability Initiative, said Mr. Silbermann. "FDA needs to know what is in place and that all of the food industry is endorsing PTI." Mr. Silbermann said his staff plan to brief FDA officials July 8 on PTI's progress.

Third, the Food Safety Working Group listed several items that would help the government build a better response system when outbreaks occur. The government plans to build a Unified Incident Command Center that would link all the agencies together and better coordinate responses during outbreaks. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention also plans to work with states to "optimize best practices for aggressive and rapid outbreak investigation," said a two-page summary from the working group.

After last summer's Salmonella "fiasco," it was evident that coordination was lacking among federal agencies and among state and local public health agencies during foodborne outbreaks, said Mr. Silbermann.

"The recognition of the clashing jurisdictions and the resulting disruptions to agencies charged with food safety is an important step toward creating a more rational and workable regulatory system," he said.