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FDA hearing furthers discussion of food-safety issues

OAKLAND, CA -- The first public hearing convened by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration since the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak associated with fresh spinach in September offered little new information about the outbreak more than six months ago, but it furthered the food-safety discussion among many of the usual industry representatives.

The food-safety hearing, which gave special attention to leafy green vegetables, drew a moderate turnout of grower-shippers, industry trade association representatives, consumer groups and the public to the Ronald Dellums Federal Building, here. Public comments were received by a six- member panel of FDA officials.

It was the candor of one FDA official that offered some revealing insights. David Acheson, director of the FDA's Office of Food Defense, Communication & Emergency Response, told members of the media during a lunch break that "there's a distinct possibility of an outbreak in leafy greens" in 2007, especially if statistics hold true.

"I'd be fooling consumers if I said, 'problem solved,'" Mr. Acheson said, adding that while growing and packing practices need to improve, the E. coli outbreak in spinach didn't make him any more aware of attendant food- safety issues in leafy greens.

He said that FDA's involvement "pre-dates spinach," and that while the E. coli outbreak in spinach was serious, it represented "one more statistic in leafy greens outbreaks."

The ability to trace back product has improved, Mr. Acheson noted, and he pointed to the strawberry industry as an example. "The goal is to narrow the [traceback] issue as quickly as possible," he said.

Mr. Acheson also told the media that the long-awaited final report by the FDA and the state Department of Health Services on the E. coli outbreak in spinach "may come out in the next week." He said that the exact cause of the E. coli outbreak in spinach likely would never be determined -- a stance that has long been held by industry officials since the outbreak.

One of the few voices of strong discord at the March 20 hearing was that of Elisa Odabashian, director of the West Coast office of Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports. Ms. Odabashian told the panel that the fresh produce industry's efforts toward self-regulation have failed the consumer and that government needs to step in with mandatory regulations.

However, FDA and state health officials reiterated their stance favoring voluntary guidelines and industry self-policing, which include a set of standards that California growers were expected to adopt the week of March 26.

James Gorny, senior vice president of food safety for the United Fresh Produce Association, said that the industry needs consistent produce food- safety standards. He told the panel that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is a strong industry ally, and that the FDA must have relationships with the USDA and other agencies and must use its authority already in place to mandate food-safety standards.

"Fear has no place in a produce department," Dr. Gorny said.

California Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) was another dissenting voice. Mr. Florez reiterated his previous comments opposing the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. About 90 percent of the leafy greens production volume is currently represented by the marketing agreement. Among the stipulations of the voluntary marketing agreement, which takes effect April 1, is a mandate that handlers comply with the latest good agricultural practices and that they buy greens only from growers who follow a set of safety practices.

Mr. Florez has three bills pending to mandate state food-safety regulations for California growers.

A public hearing similar to the one held March 20 will take place April 6 in College Park, MD. Following that hearing, the FDA's role in minimizing outbreaks in fresh produce is expected to take further shape.

California citrus industry lauded for maintaining post-freeze quality

VISALIA, CA -- In the wake of a prolonged and widespread freeze in January that devastated an estimated 70 percent of the remaining California winter citrus crop still on the trees, the California citrus industry has done an admirable job of protecting its reputation for quality by keeping freeze- damaged fruit off the market, according to several speakers and panelists at California Citrus Mutual's California Citrus Showcase held here on Thursday, March 8.

Even so, the industry and the regulators who are responsible for enforcing relevant protocols are mulling over the prospect of making mandatory some of the protocols that are at present only voluntary, even though they worked well this year on a voluntary basis.

The keynote speaker at the Citrus Showcase luncheon was A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the California Department of Food & Agriculture. In a press conference prior to the luncheon, Mr. Kawamura said that the California citrus industry "recognizes that California quality is their number one sales point. They know that if they have the best quality in the world, they will always have the best marketplace in the world."

Following the January freeze, Mr. Kawamura said that growers voluntarily "put upon themselves the discipline to make sure that frozen, damaged fruit didn't get out into the marketplace. They knew that upholding that quality is something they needed to do. It is something they believed in, something they made happen, and it works."

A workshop held during the day-long event focused on "The freeze: What protocols have worked and what fixes should be considered."

The panel, which was moderated by CCM Director Tom Wollenman, general manger of LoBue Bros., consisted of Terry Orr, general manager of Exeter- Ivanhoe Citrus; Gary Kunkel, agricultural commissioner of Tulare County; David Moore, agricultural commissioner of Kern County; and Dennis Plann, deputy agricultural commissioner of Fresno County.

Mr. Orr said that a significant volume of fruit was harvested in the days prior to (and in anticipation of) the freeze. The inventory of pre-freeze fruit in- house that could be packed and shipped for several days after the freeze, "gave time to evaluate" fruit harvested after the freeze to see whether freeze damage would show up in the fruit before it was shipped. The program "did a pretty good job" of keeping damaged fruit off the market, he said. "We have not had a lot of complaints" about arrivals of the fruit. But he does think that a seven-day holding time is preferable to the currently recommended five days, and he said he would like to see that seven-day hold made mandatory. "I didn't think the voluntary hold works," he said, but "it did this year."

It didn't during prior freezes in 1998 and 1990.

The difference, he explained, was that there was not a lot of market pressure at the time the freeze occurred, such as there was in the 1998 freeze that took place in the midst of the holiday pull.

Although the five-day hold is voluntary, it does have some regulatory teeth, Mr. Moore explained. While the hold itself is voluntary and growers could theoretically ship oranges that showed no damage without waiting five days to see if any damage showed up, it is still a violation of the California ag code to ship fruit that has more than a specified minimum amount of freeze damage - even if that damage has not yet made itself known. Facing that prospect, no one took the risk and everyone complied with the five-day hold, at a minimum. Some held the fruit even longer, just to be sure.

According to Mr. Kunkel, the industry was very cooperative in complying with the protocol. "The industry doesn't want to ship" fruit that might disappoint consumers, he said.

Mr. Plann said that he had heard of only one complaint, from a single supermarket retailer, regarding post-freeze fruit quality. There was more of a problem, however, with some small ethnic markets in Fresno County that had purchased their fruit from peddlers. "We rejected about 85 percent" of the fruit inspected in such markets, he said.

Mr. Kunkel cited one consumer complaint regarding fruit in a Central Valley supermarket. The complaint was investigated and validated, and "we destroyed the fruit," he said.

But the dearth of consumer and retailer complaints this year compared to previous freezes, while it shows that voluntary compliance worked well this year, did not convince any of the panelists that there would not be more problems the next time a devastating freeze occurs, particularly if the freeze is unexpected, leaving growers with no time to pick in advance or if the freeze occurs when there is strong demand for the fruit and therefore pressure to ship.

Most of the panelists said they would support a mandatory hold period -- and perhaps a seven-day rather than a five-day hold -- for fruit harvested post-freeze. They also supported extending the post-freeze protocols to all types of citrus. It currently applies only to oranges. Also discussed was the prospect of a mandatory harvesting moratorium for a certain number of days after a freeze, but the consensus seemed to be opposed to that.

As Mr. Kunkel said, a harvest moratorium would force growers to leave unfrozen fruit on a tree where it would continue to be at risk of getting frozen on subsequent nights even if it had avoided damage on the first night. With a prolonged freeze such as occurred this year, such a requirement would only increase, not decrease, the impact of the freeze, he said.

Mr. Wollenman said that as of mid-February, it appeared that there were about 10 million packable cartons of Navels still on the trees. Since then, about half of that had been packed, but "the last 5 million might be a little challenging," he said.

On March 9, the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service issued a revised crop forecast for the 2007 California citrus crop, lowering the Navel orange forecast to 54 million cartons, down 18 percent from the pre-freeze January estimate. That estimate does not distinguish, however, between fruit that is marketed fresh and fruit that must go to juice because of freeze damage, according to a California Citrus Mutual press release.

On average, growers "will be fortunate to pack 30 percent of the crop remaining on the tree after the freeze," the release stated.

Foreign nations look to U.S. with interest in fresh produce

BASILICATA, ITALY -- Produce professionals from around the world kept busy at the workshop and mission in Basilicata, Italy, in mid-January (see The Produce News, Feb. 5). If the nearly non-stop wave of Italian food and wine weren't enough to keep their minds on what the region has to offer, the extensive field, packing and distribution facility, and greenhouse tours were filling their days full of details on which to concentrate.

But these savvy professionals didn't miss the opportunity to speak with fellow travelers from the United States to learn more about what U.S. producers can offer.

The workshop and mission, hosted by the region of Basilicata and the Italian (National) Institute of International Commerce for the Puglia and Basilicata regions, included a group of 25 produce professionals and media representatives from France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Abu Dhabi, Russia and the United States, which was represented by Tim (TJ) Fleming Jr. and Franco Alimondi, produce buyers for Strube Celery & Vegetable Co. in Chicago.

Jos? Mar?a Navarro Acedo, technical team leader, represented International Produce, headquartered in West Yorkshire in the United Kingdom. The firm sources produce for ASDA, the country's second-largest retailer and a subsidiary of Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer.

"We have developed an industry-leading range of imported fresh products including apples, pears, melons, stone fruit, grapes and citrus," said Mr. Acedo. "I work predominantly with the Italian division of ASDA, but we source from around the world. We are particularly interested in several products that are being produced in the United States currently, including citrus and peaches. There is also a lot of interest currently in the honeydew and other melon varieties being produced there. Some of the new melon varieties are superior to what we can find in other parts of the world today."

Russian representatives agreed that some U.S. products are unmatched in their quality. Ekaterina Ukhanova, purchasing director of Greenfields Service in Moscow, which supplies grocery stores, hotels, restaurants, catering companies and other high-end foodservice operations, said that her interest was piqued when she saw the opportunity to speak to people from the United States about the fruits and vegetables grown there and how those items fit into the lifestyle trends of Russians.

"We are always interested in expanding into new territories and products to enhance our high-quality line, and we are looking to the U.S. for some items that we feel meet our criteria," said Ms. Ukhanova. "Moscow definitely likes American products, although they are more expensive than European goods. We are currently buying apples, pears, grapes and pomegranates from American growers, but we are looking to expand into new items. Our supermarkets are fond of long-stem strawberries, blueberries, gooseberries, and red and yellow raspberries. Other areas of strong interest currently are cherries - both dark and yellow."

Ms. Ukhanova said that American products have some eye-catching details that Russian consumers like. She said that when the company first introduced U.S. products, Russian clients were not prepared to pay the high price.

"But as time passed and they began to realize the high quality that U.S. produce offered, the situation began to change," she said. "People tasted the fruit and started to ask for more. I remember the season a few years ago when the demand for U.S.-grown Red Delicious apples reached the same level as European apples. We even began supplying mid-range supermarkets with the apples, and although they still cost more, people are willing to spend the money because of the superior quality."

Ms. Ukhanova stressed the need for companies like hers to learn more about U.S. produce. To Russian consumers, it's a new line of produce, and like anywhere in the world, the new guys on the block always get the most attention. She added that the problem is that Russians still know very little about U.S. production.

"It would be very interesting to learn more about the assortment, production techniques, grading, packing and other details," she said. "Gaining this knowledge could open some very strong trade opportunities between our countries."

Bharat Bushan, sales and marketing manager of the general purchasing department at Abu Dhabi National Hotels, which purchases for Hilton International, Le Meridien, Sheraton and Al Diar hotels in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates, agreed with Ms. Ukhanova about the uniqueness and high quality of products like apples from the United States.

"The issue is the distance between the U.S. and the Emirates," he explained. "Abu Dhabi is a wealthy nation today, and consumers do have the money to spend, but like anywhere in the world, price is something we must keep under tight reign and be able to justify in our budget. I would like to know more about products that are unique, have long shelf life profiles and that could reach us in a timely manner without the costs becoming prohibitive."

Alberto Camisa, representing Fratelli Camisa, a chain of specialty gourmet food stores in the United Kingdom, has strong ties with Italy because of the Italian theme represented in the retailer's culture. Although its primary strength is meats, cheeses, prepared foods and other specialty goods, the company also offers fresh produce. He agreed that learning about U.S. product is key to successful trade between companies and countries.

"At present, we do not import from the U.S., but it is a section of the market which we have been considering entering for some time," said Mr. Camisa. "We would welcome the opportunity to learn more about specialty and gourmet fruits and vegetables that fit our profile."

Diana Papuc, who handles import procurement specialties for Davis (Louth) Ltd. in the United Kingdom, said that the company imports, exports and distributes the finest fresh fruit, vegetables and salads from around the world.

"We are a 100-plus-year-old company known for its expertise in the fresh produce industry," said Ms. Papuc. "Since the 1940s, the family owners have been known for their expertise in the production and distribution of fresh produce. I agree that importing more from the U.S. is only a matter of learning more about product and determining how it will fit into our category. Trade has opened up an entirely new world to every country on earth, and anything is possible today. I would welcome the opportunity to learn more about what the U.S. has to offer our company."

CAC to take legal action against Mexican Hass imports

At a board meeting Thursday, March 15, the California Avocado Commission "voted unanimously to take aggressive action against the importation of Mexican avocados with dangerous scale pests coming into California," according to a March 16 commission memo to the industry.

The commissioners agreed to follow three courses of action, according to the memo: to "continue to apply extreme pressure on all fronts" to resolve a "jurisdictional issue between the California Department of Food & Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture" arising out of differences between state and federal definitions of what constitutes an excludable pest; to introduce legislation at the state level "to reduce the risk of pest and disease infestations in avocados imported into California from countries with known phytosanitary problems; and to file a lawsuit against the USDA to suspend shipments of Mexican avocados into California."

CAC will "file a legal complaint asserting that the government's import protocol for Mexican avocados is defective. The complaint will be accompanied by a Motion for a Preliminary Injunction -- a request to the court that all shipments of Mexican avocados into California be halted because of the threat of imminent irreparable injury to California growers," the memo stated.

Regarding the first point, the memo noted that "USDA still has not officially responded to CDFA's request for modification of a cooperative agreement that would allow federal inspectors to turn scale-infested shipments over to CDFA for disposition."

Effective Feb. 1, the USDA allowed Mexican-grown Hass avocados to enter California for the first time since the 1920s under a strict protocol designed to assure that no exotic pests potentially harmful to California's avocado industry would be imported with the fruit.

As of Feb. 19, CDFA inspectors had rejected 11 of 44 loads of avocados crossing into California in interstate commerce due to detection of armored scale pests thought to be invasive. Subsequently, a CDFA spokesperson acknowledged that pest finds in 10 of the 11 loads had been misidentified and were actually a type of scale already in California.

More recently, armored scale insects were found by Los Angeles County agricultural inspectors on Mexican-grown Hass avocados on the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market, according to a March 15 article in the North County Times. The fruit was taken off the market and fumigated.

One concern of both the CAC and the CDFA has been a disagreement between the state and USDA as to what constitutes an excludible pest. State inspectors check loads of fruit coming into California from other states and reject loads when they find species of scale insects not already established in California. However, state inspectors have no jurisdiction at international border crossings such as those near San Diego, and the USDA inspectors there allow fruit into the state even though it may contain pests that California law prohibits.

In a March 19 CAC memo, the commission urged "state regulators to stand firm in their resolve to reject shipments of Mexican avocados found to contain invasive species of armored scale. CDFA recently told CAC that it is seeking to 'reopen the discussion on USDA's 1985 Risk Assessment pertaining to armored scale.' According to CDFA sources, if USDA is unwilling to do so, the state agency will 'remain at loggerheads with USDA for awhile' as it continues to enforce state phytosanitary policy by rejecting shipments found to contain quarantine pests."

Ron Campbell, who represents APEAM, an association of avocado growers, packers and exporters in Michoacan, Mexico, and also MHAIA, the Mexican Avocado Importers Association, told The Produce News March 19, "We were caught completely off guard" by CAC's decision to seek an injunction against entry of Mexican Hass avocados into the state.

"We have been working very closely with the avocado commission for over two years now," Mr. Campbell said. "We had a very close working relationship with them. And in a matter of a few days, they turned away from all this good will and bridge building and fence mending. They turned the clocks back to 1996 [when Mexican avocados were first allowed into some Northeastern states]."

According to Mr. Campbell, the people at the California Avocado Commission have "known about these scales since avocados have been coming into the United States" and have never previously expressed an objection. "This scale insect was nothing to them until a few angry growers out there made them do a complete about-face on their position on it. Now all of a sudden it is a risk, where in the past it was nothing. They didn't even consider it to be anything."

The initial confusion over the identification of some of the scale insects found on Mexican fruit "leads me to believe that they don't really know what they have there, but they are taking action, they are erring on the side of caution by keeping this pest out," said Mr. Campbell. But "scales are common in agriculture. There is scale in commercial produce, and armored scale is a non-mobile pest that does not present a phytosanitary risk to agriculture. This is contrived. It is an effort to limit the supply of fruit in California, boost prices and to make money. It is more or less just the California Avocado Commission being populists for their industry. I don't believe they really believe it is a risk or they would have brought it up long before now."

Tom Bellamore, senior vice president and corporate counsel for CAC, told The Produce News that because of the pending litigation, he could not comment on whether the commission had expressed concern prior to Jan. 31 over the specific pests now in question.

However, after checking sources within his department, Steve Lyle, CDFA's director of public affairs, confirmed to The Produce News that the department's concern with regard to the scale pests "is a discussion with the USDA that we have been having for some time, significantly predating the February 1 shipment date of Hass avocados from Mexico and the detection of the scale pests of concern."

He said that it is "also worth noting that in response to our request that the USDA reconsider its position on the scale pest, the feds have committed to establishing a technical working group" to examine the issue. "So there is some movement on our request, and we regard that as a positive step." Calls to the USDA's public affairs office in Sacramento were not returned by press time for the March 26 issue of The Produce News.

"We have been in very close communication with the California Department of Food and Agriculture urging them to remain strong in their resolve and to have this jurisdictional issue cleared up," said Mr. Bellamore. "CDFA has assured us that they are taking it very seriously and they are seeking to reopen a dialogue with USDA about the risk presented by armored scale insects."

In response to Mr. Campbell's expression of surprise on the part of the Mexican avocado industry at CAC's actions, Mr. Bellamore said, "California avocado growers were incredulous when they learned that the first trucks entering California carried an invasive species that they did not have. It is the fear that they had expressed from the beginning of rulemaking on Mexican avocados, and it was realized virtually the first day Mexican avocados entered California. Those events occurred without so much as a telephone call from the Mexican industry to the California industry saying, 'Oh, we understand there is a problem here.'"

Jose Luis Obregon, executive director of the Hass Avocado Board, which coordinates generic promotion of Hass avocados in the United States for domestic and imported product, does not expect that a preliminary injunction, if it is granted, would be significantly disruptive to the marketplace.

Even though the California crop is down significantly this year, there is still enough California product to meet the needs of the California marketplace, he said. "Most of the [Mexican] fruit is handled by California handlers, so I am sure that the California crop will stay within the California borders, and they can just redirect their trucks that come from Mexico to supply the other markets. Even if something happens, there will be plenty of supplies to supply all of the California demand."

While that may be true for the California market as a whole, one avocado marketer in California who handles both domestic and imported fruit and who asked not to be identified said that he expects to see significant losses if an injunction against the entry of Mexican Hass is granted.

Fred Williamson of Andrew Williamson has died

Fred L. Williamson, a well-known tomato industry leader and co-founder of Andrew Williamson Fresh Produce in San Diego, died March 20, at the age of 70.

Company spokesperson Mark Munger said Mr. Williamson had been sicker than he let on and that pneumonia was the official cause of death.

A native of Plymouth, NH, Mr. Williamson moved to Oceanside, CA, as a child, and he lived there the rest of his life. A graduate of Cal Western College in San Diego, his first position in the produce industry was tomato sales manager with Kawano Bros. Inc. in Oceanside, where he worked with his best friend, Raymond Kawano, for 20 years. He then worked with Agri Sales Inc. in Vista, CA.

In 1986, Mr. Williamson formed a partnership with the late Fred Andrew, and together they opened Andrew Williamson Sales Co.

Considered by many to be a pioneer in the Baja California, Mexico, vine- ripened tomato industry, Mr. Williamson introduced technology, new tomato varieties and financing to the Baja region, and the company soon became recognized as a premium vine-ripened tomato shipper. Mr. Williamson's son, Fred M. Williamson, took over the presidency of the company in 1997. The elder Mr. Williamson remained on the company's board of directors and continued to be instrumental in the growth and success of the company until his death.

Mr. Munger, who went to college with the younger Mr. Williamson, said that the elder Mr. Williamson was instrumental in his choice of careers.

"When I think of Fred, I think of someone who had a tremendous passion for the produce industry," he told The Produce News March 21. "He was an enthusiastic mentor for young people. When I was in college and first met him, he was always telling us we should go into the produce industry."

John King, the current vice president of sales for Andrew Williamson, said, "It was an honor to work with him. He gave me my start in the produce industry 20 years ago and was a great mentor. I enjoyed his company both on the job and away from work."

Mr. Williamson served on the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association's board of directors from 1982 to 1984. He was also an active leader of the California Tomato Board, chairing many committees and serving as chairman of the board for four years.

Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, said in a press release, "Fred was a visionary and leader in the industry. He was an early adopter of the '5 A Day' brand well before many others, putting the name on his boat and in his e-mail address. He and his wife, Judy, were truly ambassadors for the industry. Together, they reached out and embraced the other United board members and made them feel welcome in the organization."

Mr. Williamson is survived by his wife of 47 years, Judy; sons Fred and Mitch; daughters Jennifer, Suzie, Sheri and Trisha; and 14 grandchildren.

The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be sent in Fred Williamson's name to either the Oceanside Boys & Girls Club at 401 Country Club Lane, Oceanside, CA 92054, or to Brother Benno's Foundation at 3260 Production Ave., Oceanside, CA 92054.