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Panel shares report card on fresh produce industry

SAN DIEGO -- The fresh produce industry tends toward high marks in the areas of marketing its goods but much lower marks in preventing foodborne illnesses, including the rise in those illnesses from consumption of fresh produce, according to a report card on the industry presented as a workshop at the recent Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit.

Kathy Means, PMA's vice president of government relations, oversaw the workshop with panelists Robert Brackett, director of the Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, and A.G. Kawamura, California's secretary of agriculture.

Mr. Kawamura said that evidence shows that nationwide, 95 percent of individual health care dollars goes toward treatment after people have become sick -- not on prevention. But the farm bill gets a "satisfactory" grade from Mr. Kawamura because about 50 percent of the funds in the bill go for food programs such as food stamps and school lunch programs. He praised California for its school garden program.

He gave an "outstanding" grade to international marketing as demonstrated in trade junkets. He included in his praise the innovative products, packaging and marketing as demonstrated at Fresh Summit.

As for food safety, Mr. Kawamura said that a united message to consumers is "probably the best thing," while individual company claims as distinguished from the rest of the competition can have a downside.

Mr. Kawamura said that as a society, people should think of harmful pathogens like E. coli 0157:H7 as "silent terrorists" intent on doing harm. More attention and money might go toward prevention of such outbreaks if in broad terms people looked at the threat the way they approached public safety -- from the threat of human terrorists, he said.

"For consumers, all we're doing is dividing consumer confidence," Mr. Kawamura said. Ms. Means acknowledged that over the next 14 months, PMA would commit $1 million toward food-safety issues.

"There's an issue with rebuilding buyer confidence, not just consumer confidence," Ms. Means said.

In the realm of food safety efforts, Dr. Brackett said that the fresh produce industry is where the beef industry was 30 or 40 years ago.

Regarding the E. coli outbreak in spinach, Dr. Brackett said that even when a problem area is identified, there is a "halo effect."

"It [the outbreak] was unprecedented at the time," Dr. Brackett said, adding that officials had no idea whether the outbreak was just starting, was in the middle or was nearing its end. As a result, FDA came out with a broad statement advising against any consumption of fresh spinach.

"If we can demonstrate a decrease at [the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention], we will consider that successful," Dr. Brackett said.