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PLEASANTON, CA — At a recent food-safety seminar hosted here by the Produce Marketing Association, Bob Whitaker, PMA's chief science officer, stressed the importance of companies involving their sales staffs in food safety efforts.

Dr. Whitaker said that while salespeople are understandably focused on making sales, they also need to be aware of food-safety issues.

Expanding on that, he said that while technical people in a company are working on improving their own operations and that of their suppliers, a salesperson can easily sabotage the effort through everyday activity such as going outside of normal supply lines to fill orders.

"We know how it works," he offered. "No one wants to turn down an order. But you have to make sure you know your suppliers. We are only as good as our weakest link."

He said that every company should anticipate these situations and have a pre-approved list of suppliers that the salespeople can use in the event of a shortage.

"Don't allow the salespeople to go off that list," he admonished. "And make sure the food-safety guy for the firm has the power to reject a supplier."

He said that it doesn't work too well if the food-safety people are reporting to production or sales, as both those departments have a vested interested in volume. "The food-safety guy needs the authority to do his job."

He also reminded the audience that a food-safety audit is only a snapshot in time. "Don't place too much emphasis on it," he cautioned.

Dr. Whitaker said that a company may have a third-party audit on file, but it may not be specific to the crop and field from which a product is being sourced. These are questions that should be answered by the food-safety people far in advance of doing business with the firm.

The seminar continued with various other panelists, including Ed Treacy, PMA's vice president of supply chain efficiencies.

Mr. Treacy used a good portion of his time discussing the recently passed federal legislation called the Food Modernization Act. The act puts new requirements on the food industry, as it was designed to address food-safety concerns. Many of those requirements, including a traceability mandate, are being developed over the coming months.

On the plus side, Mr. Treacy said that the new law has mandated better cooperation among government agencies and is forcing these agencies to conduct pilot studies with regard to new food-safety requirements. In addition, the benefits of all new regulations must outweigh the burdens that the additional requirements carry. They also have to be science-based.

Barbara Cassens, the Food & Drug Administration's San Francisco District director, said that the agency wants a prevention-based, food-safety program for the fresh produce industry that is flexible, interactive and utilizes modern technology. She said that the FDA regulations will not be prescriptive in nature but will rely on best practices and measurable standards.

Ms. Cassens told the crowd that the FDA proposed rules for fresh produce should be released in December. That will be followed by a comment period, which is typically 90 days. She said that the FDA would issue its final rules about a year later, so the industry should expect them in the spring of 2013.

The act also regulates product being imported into the United States and requires that all imported food comply with all U.S. regulations. Those regulations have yet to be written, but Mr. Treacy predicted that there would be some type of certification program that creates a fast lane for companies that participate in the program.

Another major change in the new law is that it gives FDA officials the authority to require a food recall if the offending company is not cooperating. In the past, all food recalls were voluntary, and Mr. Treacy said that by all means a company should recall its product voluntarily if requested to do so.

One negative to the law is that Congress did decide to exempt some small operators. For an individual grower to be exempted, his or her volume must be less than $500,000 in sales annually and all product must be sold locally and directly to consumers. Very few will qualify for the exemption, but it is there nonetheless over the objection of most of production agriculture.

Another panelist, Jon Holder, senior manager of produce and floral for Raley's Family of Fine Stores in Sacramento, CA, said that while the new law might exempt small operators from some rules and regulations, that is not the retailer's policy.

"We do want to support local growers, but we aren't going to accept product that does not meet the same standards that we set for our big growers," he said. "[The small growers] need to have a food-safety program with Good Agricultural Practices in place."

Raley's takes an active role in the process as the retailer has developed a food-safety packet for its prospective local growers outlining in detail the steps they need to take to be in compliance with the company's best practices. Raley's even offers expert advice from in-house people before having the grower submit the operation to a third-party audit.