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More recalls expected from new FDA initiatives aimed at fresh produce

by Joan Murphy | September 14, 2009
WASHINGTON -- Expect more government testing of fresh produce in the coming months and more recalls. This was the message that more than 100 United Fresh Produce Association members heard from Food & Drug Administration officials at a Sept. 10 meeting. As part of the Sept. 9-11 Washington Public Policy Conference, United Fresh staged a town hall meeting with FDA regulators to hear about the latest developments at FDA's College Park, MD, office. At the two-hour meeting, a top FDA official said that the agency is conducting "fresh produce sampling blitzes" to look for pathogens in commodities implicated in past outbreaks and recalls. The goal of the sampling blitzes is to start at the beginning of the growing season and check domestic and foreign grown crops in high-volume growing and exporting regions, said Roberta Wagner, director of the food divisions Office of Compliance. The agency plans to investigate farms and packinghouses when appropriate, and it expects findings to result in voluntary recalls, she said. For imports, a positive finding could put a company on FDAs detention list. The agency also plans to more than triple the number of foreign inspections of fresh produce, seafood and other high-risk food plants from 200 inspections in fiscal 2009 to 650 inspections in FY 2010 and 1,000 inspections in FY 2011, she said. In a new development, FDA is accessing electronic results from U.S. Department of Agricultures Microbiological Data Program. USDA is testing some 10,000 samples of fresh produce each year at distribution centers and checking them for pesticides and pathogens. So far, Ms. Wagner said that FDA has not found egregious conditions on the farm and only some problems with processors. Were looking for bigger, broader problems, not single events. But thats not everything on FDAs plate. Keith Lampel, director of FDAs division of microbiology, is planning to test tomatoes at East Coast roadside stands, bagged fresh produce and other raw commodities to gather baseline data on Salmonella and the overall microbiological load, which will help FDA refine test methods. FDAs Michelle Smith said that the agency is busy starting to write mandatory fresh produce regulations. When asked whether the rules would apply to large and small fresh produce companies, Ms. Smith said that FDA is committed to considering the needs of small business.

It should apply to everyone, said Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of United Fresh.

A small outbreak can decimate a marketplace so were sensitive to making exceptions, said another industry representative.

The agency is just starting to look at food industry-wide traceability guidelines, which may affect the produce industrys own traceability effort.

Produce companies also need to comply with the new Reportable Food Registry, an on-line portal that requires responsible parties to report contamination problems for products in distribution within 24 hours. All food companies, except dietary supplement and infant formula makers, were required to start using the on-line system on Sept. 8.

One attendee questioned FDA officials about an article, Sprouts: Not a Healthy Food for Everyone, posted on the Obama administrations new web site (

To have a new government statement that one product is unsafe is unacceptable, said Mr. Stenzel.

Another produce industry representative urged FDA to consider fine-tuning its recall message, particularly since the sampling programs are expects to result in more recalls.

Weve been struggling with this, but it is a top priority for the agency, said FDAs Sherri McGarry, who said that FDA wants consumers to be alerted and at the same time is working on how to target its message.