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PMA brings real-world produce food safety experience to regulators via field tours

by | September 21, 2009
NEWARK, DE -- Produce Marketing Association staff are hosting local tours of food safety regulators on each U.S. coast just two weeks before the global produce industry will focus on food safety at PMA's 2009 Fresh Summit International Convention & Exposition.

Senior Food & Drug Administration officials, including Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, visited small farms in PMA's home state of Delaware Sept. 18 as part of a fact-finding tour to learn more about produce safety, such as traceability. That tour, planned by PMA, included a town hall meeting with area growers.

Later the week of Sept. 21, PMA Chief Science Officer Bob Whitaker will support a three-day tour of the California produce industry by regional FDA, state and Canadian regulators that is being arranged by the Center for Produce Safety.

The Delaware tour included stops at Filasky's Produce & Farm Market in Middletown, Fifer Orchards in Wyoming and Vincent Farms in Laurel. Area growers were also invited to attend a luncheon and town hall meeting with the FDA officials.

The tour was initiated after Commissioner Hamburg and PMA President and Chief Executive Officer Bryan Silbermann were introduced at a briefing they attended of the White House Food Safety Working Group in July.

Accompanying Dr. Hamburg on the Delaware tour were Michael Taylor, senior adviser to the commissioner, and Samir Assar, director of the produce safety staff in the Office of Food Safety at FDA's Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition. Also representing FDA were Melinda Plaisier, Regional Director; Charlotte Christin, senior policy analyst; and Sharon Natanblut, strategic communications consultant.

PMA staff included Mr. Silbermann; Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs; Tom O'Brien, Washington, DC, representative; and Julia Stewart, public relations director. Faith Kuehn, plant industry section manager, represented the Delaware Department of Agriculture. Gordon Johnson at the University of Delaware's Cooperative Extension Service moderated the town hall discussion and assisted with tour planning and logistics.

Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee sent his personal welcome to the FDA tour attendees, also noting his agency's interest in working in cooperative partnerships. "The Delaware Department of Agriculture is committed to partnering with FDA and the University of Delaware to help Delaware growers continue their success in providing safe produce and other food products," Mr. Kee said in a Sept. 22 PMA press release.

The tour presented an unusual opportunity for industry to provide input to senior-level officials, and industry members were encouraged to speak freely. "The tone has fundamentally changed with the new administration; they want to hear from us," Mr. Silbermann told town hall luncheon participants. Commissioner Hamburg reinforced her agency's interest in industry input during her welcoming comments.

The growers and regulators discussed a range of topics during tour stops, including how to cost-effectively address the produce industry's food safety needs, such as audits and traceability; commodity-specific issues and the need for risk-based, commodity-specific solutions; industrywide issues such as water testing and standards; and the particular challenges faced by small operations (which can face steep learning curves), overburdened staff now expected to add this new time commitment, and significant out-of-pocket costs ranging from building overhauls to audit fees.

Luncheon discussion addresses the need to level the playing field by ensuring that standards apply to all operators -- "what's good for one is good for all," noted one commenter. Several participants stressed the need for a risk- based approach, with one participant noting that when it comes to produce, "one program does not fit all." Small growers stressed that they would need extra help, such as education or grants. A state health official asked FDA to avoid unfunded mandates, which are a particular challenge for small states like Delaware.

Both Dr. Hamburg and Mr. Taylor stressed the agency's interest in hearing from and involving industry, including small operators, as the agency considers its future direction. Recognizing the value of the farm tours and listening session, Commissioner Hamburg said in the release, "We're doing this because we know we need to listen and learn to do our job right. And doing our job right includes being sensitive to the concerns and circumstances of small-scale operators and organic growers."

She added, "As I've said before, everyone in the business of growing and selling food has a duty to make the food safe, but there is more than one pathway to that result. Our rules will be based on an adaptable set of preventive control principles. They will not be 'one-size-fits-all.' They will be scale appropriate."

Mr. Taylor reiterated the agency's plans to use a risk-based approach, and noted that any proposals would be a year away with plenty of opportunity for industry to be heard.

The California tour in which PMA's Dr. Whitaker will participate will include visits to a broad cross-section of growing, packing and processing operations. It will offer a boots-on-the-ground overview of some key commodities grown in northern California, including tomatoes and melons, two commodities identified as food-safety priorities by FDA. Field and facility tours will be led by food-safety and quality-control professionals.

PMA member Markon Cooperative helped plan the Center for Produce Safety regulatory tour. The center, housed at the University of California at Davis, funds produce-specific, food-safety research and industry education with the support of PMA and other industry organizations. Dr. Whitaker chairs the center's Technical Committee, which oversees the center's research program. Markon's Tim York chairs the CPS advisory board and PMA's Mr. Silbermann was an architect behind the creation of the center.

"They are going to get a crash course in produce food safety; it will be an intense three days," CPS Executive Director Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli said in the release. "It should be an invaluable experience for the regulators as well as for industry to understand their perspective."

PMA's support for the East Coast and West Coast regulators' tours is the latest installment of an ongoing association effort to bring real-world experience to government. In early September, PMA's Dr. Whitaker and Ms. Means visited legislators and regulators in Washington, DC, regarding a range of food-safety topics, including Congress' ongoing deliberations about food safety legislation and opportunities to improve federal microbiological data programs. Dr. Whitaker has also been working with FDA regarding a mobile food safety testing laboratory.

"The chance to help FDA officials see first hand where we live and work every day is unprecedented," said Dr. Whitaker said in the release. "These tours demonstrate the administration's willingness to try to find real-world solutions to safeguard public health. It is in our industry's best interests to make sure that they get what they need so that they can do the best and smartest job possible getting us what we need."