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Food safety the focus at FPFC luncheon

PLEASANTON, CA — Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, discussed the produce industry's opportunities and challenges, including the all-important food-safety issue, as the keynote speaker at the Sept. 12 Fresh Produce & Floral Council luncheon, here.

Stenzel, who titled his speech "Growth or Stagnation," said there are some factors that point to great growth on the horizon, but there are also challenges that threaten to derail that growth.

On the positive side, he listed some of the great benefits of fresh produce that position it perfectly as the nation fights the child obesity epidemic and runaway health-care costs. Increased consumption of fresh produce is part of the solution to both of those societal ills.

But the United executive said the food-safety issue is extremely important and the fear that produce recalls illicit from consumers is a real concern. He also said maintaining a sufficient labor force to harvest U.S. crops is another major hurdle for the growth of fresh produce consumption.

On the food-safety issue, Stenzel went through some of the proposed rules in the Food Safety Modernization Act and gave the audience some insight into which areas United and other produce representatives are going to push back against.

In general, the industry wants commodity-specific, science-based regulations that treat all producers of any specific commodity the same, regardless of size or location, he said.

"We oppose any exemption even for the smallest of growers," Stenzel said, adding that harmful pathogens do not distinguish between the sizes of the ranches where they appear.

With regard to the rules regulating facilities, he said the FSMA proposals deal with all operations the same whether it is a processor of fresh-cut produce or a warehouse that merely is a transfer station for fresh produce.

The initial proposals require all facilities to put the same action plan in place. Stenzel said that would be extremely burdensome on the industry, and he indicated it is unnecessary. He said facilities with different purposes and much different levels of risk should have different rules.

On the food-safety issue, he implored all members of the industry to get their own facilities in order. He worries that current recalls, which he believes are inevitable, do not have any impact on the underlying problem and only serve to scare the consumer.

Stenzel revealed that produce industry recalls have become commonplace, with 33 in the last 18 months. He said the industry has to devise a better recall system than the one currently in place, which results in after-the-fact pulling of product from shelves that is not contaminated. By the time most recalls are initiated, the offending product has already moved through the system. The only result is a consumer that shies away from the recalled product.

"We need to learn to better manage recalls and outbreaks, because they're not going away," he said.

On the labor front, Stenzel said immigration reform that gives legal status to the industry's current undocumented worker population as well as authorizes a guest worker system is a must if the produce industry is to have an adequate workforce to harvest its crops. He said that lack of labor is a huge problem and it will only get worse in the coming years.

Stenzel did leave the crowd with an optimistic view of the future. He said many programs, including the school snack program and efforts to feed impoverished Americans, are exposing more and more young people to fresh produce and hopefully putting them on the path of lifetime consumption.