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Taylor Farms' Drew McDonald: food safety bill needs to be fixed to gain industry support

by Joan Murphy | July 16, 2009
WASHINGTON -- Food safety legislation should not hand the Food & Drug Administration quarantine authority and should not require finished product testing -- two fixes the produce industry asked for at a July 16 hearing in the House Agriculture Committee.

Ranchers and farmers said they could not support the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, which is heading to the House floor after passing a committee in June. The bill, they fear, would expand FDA's authority on the farm for producers already regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Farms are explicitly included in extensive recordkeeping, reporting and traceability measures which may not be feasible or practical for many producers," said Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Federation. FDA is not equipped to look at agricultural practices, he said, and these new measures would impose significant costs on food producers.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN), who led the more than three-hour hearing, warned that if Democratic sponsors of the bill don't agree to make legislative fixes, the committee may seek jurisdiction of the bill and report it out unfavorably.

"Directing FDA to tell farmers how to farm will make food more expensive but not make it safer," Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) said at the House hearing.

Drew McDonald, a vice president for Salinas, CA-based Taylor Farms, appeared on a panel of cattlemen and farmers, saying that a requirement to conduct finished product testing would "generate confusion and costs." The salad processor conducts microbial sampling but uses the information to assure tht its HACCP program is working.

"It is Taylor Farms' belief that HACCP provides greater security of control over product safety than is possible with traditional product testing," he said.

Taylor Farms joined the nation's cattle producers in questioning a provision in the bill that would grant FDA authority to quarantine a geographical area when a food presents serious health threat.

"The produce industry supports reasoned action based on science and evidence, but we must object to quarantining all growers based on nothing more than conjecture," said Mr. McDonald, who testified on behalf of three produce associations: United Fresh Produce Association, Produce Marketing Association and Western Growers Association.

But FDA newly named senior advisor Mike Taylor (who has no affiliation with Taylor Farms) tried to calm industry and congressional concerns by pledging to use the bill's new tools judiciously.

The proposal to give FDA new authority to quarantine foods during outbreaks is "aimed at a very unusual situation," said Mr. Taylor, who started his job as a new advisor to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg on July 6. FDA already has authority on the farm and plans to collaborate with USDA on new food safety regulations, he added.

What's missing from the bill? Several panelists said they would support adding provisions to the bill that would indemnify producers from losses when a federal agency wrongly identifies a food in an outbreak situation.

"We very much believe indemnification is needed," said Mr. Wooten. One farmer is still paying off a loan because he couldn't sell tomatoes during the Salmonella scare last summer, he added. Tomatoes were first identified of the cause of a nationwide Salmonella outbreak that was later identified with Mexican-grown peppers.