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INDUSTRY VIEWOINT: Food safety help, not hindrance

Federal policymakers rely on laws and regulations to safeguard the food supply. This is understandable, since these are the tools at their disposal. But it overlooks the expertise our supply chain has gained over the years to enhance safety.

I believe that it is our industry's obligation -- and that it works to our benefit -- to bring that information and expertise to Washington, DC, where significant changes to our food-safety system are now being considered.

Among my duties as chief science officer at the Produce Marketing Association, I serve as a bridge between our industry and Congress and regulators on matters of science and technology, including food safety. Toward that end, I, along with PMA's government relations leaders, Tom O'Brien and Kathy Means, recently completed an important series of meetings in Washington with key food-safety influencers. They included members of Congress, their staffs and committee experts with food-safety oversight, along with federal food-safety regulators.

My goal for these meetings was to encourage these lawmakers and regulators to account for and harness the advances industry has already made as they consider actions that might affect us. The message I delivered was simple: We know what works, so let's work together to get the real-world solutions we both want.

Federal changes are coming - there is no doubt. To ensure these changes mesh with our own needs to enhance food safety, we must be actively engaged with and inform Washington about our industry's ongoing efforts. Otherwise, the "solutions" they come up with may impose undue burdens.

Our trip to Washington included numerous meetings on Capitol Hill. Right now, both houses of Congress are actively considering new food-safety legislation; the recent deadly outbreak of Salmonella tied to peanut products is the latest booster rocket propelling such legislation.

Reps. Adam Putnam (R-FL) and Jim Costa (D-CA), both well known to our industry, are principal co-sponsors of one of the significant bills. They, along with Richard Durbin (D-IL) and the other sponsors of the Senate's corresponding bill, should be applauded for their leadership on the issue. Beyond discussing the various bills around Capitol Hill, my purpose was to make them aware of the science and risk-based food-safety solutions the industry is already implementing at farms, packinghouses, wholesale, foodservice and retail.

We also visited with leaders of the Food & Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition, including Director Steve Sundlof. In recent months, PMA has responded to numerous FDA requests for information and has filed comments on several key topics relating to food safety, including third-party certification.

When drafting our extensive comments to the FDA's latest request to update Good Agricultural Practices, PMA also outlined potential solutions to help FDA more effectively recognize industry-developed food-safety standards and assure third-party verification. We were happy to learn that the FDA welcomed the information we provided and is exploring a number of options. I left Washington hopeful.

Besides my work with regulators in Washington, I'm also partnering with Dave Gombas of the United Fresh Produce Association to continue the work that the associations started last summer with the FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

Last year's Salmonella saintpaul outbreak investigation exposed the fragility of the local, state and federal public-health system.

Errors by local officials were magnified as they moved through a system that has little knowledge of our industry. So we're working to bring industry expertise to inform both agencies and to improve their performance during produce outbreak investigations. We can also help them tailor their efforts to fit marketplace realities.

It is only natural to recoil from the thought of more laws and regulations. However, we also know the pain of laboring under wrong-headed rules. Some of the ideas floating now are extreme and would actually defeat our efforts to improve safety and still maintain viable businesses. That is exactly why the industry needs to demonstrate our leadership on food safety.

Further, new legislation holds promise for actually improving things for us. I worked for a leafy greens company before I came to PMA. There I witnessed firsthand the crushing effects on an entire industry of a federal government advisory to consumers to avoid spinach.

While we need a better-working FDA, we need more than just better regulatory operations - we need bigger-picture thinking.

For example, the burdensome multiplicity of audits our industry currently faces has sprung up in part because of the lack of a federal system to guide development of comprehensive, risk- and science-based food-safety standards and audits.

The result is the current system where we run the risk of focusing so much on passing audits that we can lose sight of the larger picture of safeguarding our products.

The produce industry lives food safety every day. We are already doing much to protect public health. As federal policymakers consider new regulation and agency reforms, we must be part of that discussion to offer science-based rationales for what works. We can't stop that process, nor should we. But our active engagement in the process may make the difference between ending up with rules that help vs. rules that hinder.

For PMA, that choice is clear. So I will continue to walk the halls of Congress, the FDA and the CDC debating food-safety science and offering our assistance to those officials charged with protecting the public. It is our shared duty.

(Bob Whitaker is chief science officer of the Produce Marketing Association. Find out more about his activities and views, including the importance of implementing a companywide food safety culture, via his audioblog at askdrbob.pma.com.)