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Experts share advice for companies in food safety crises at WPPC

WASHINTON -- Questions such as whether to take separate laboratory samples when the Food & Drug Administration is probing a facility or what types of documents FDA can access during inspections were some of the topics discussed at an Oct. 1 session, here, during the United Fresh Produce Association's annual Washington Public Policy Conference.

During a crowded session, panelists responded to a range of food-safety questions.

Lisa Watson, partner for WatsonGreen LLC, a Washington-based consulting firm, said one of the biggest problems a company can have during an outbreak or recall is failure to set up a recall communication plan.

During a crisis, there are lots of emotions and confusion about who should talk to whom and who is responsible for updating the web site, all of which can be taken care of before there's a problem.

"It's not an ideal time to put a communication plan together [during a crisis]," she said. Companies need to be careful as all communication released to the public has legal ramifications.

Legal issues are a big concern for companies, according to David Durkin, principal at Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz and legal counsel to United Fresh, who said produce companies need a specialized attorney who is adept at dealing with FDA in the event of a crisis.

Recalls are just the beginning of a complex process of dealing with FDA, he said, and FDA inspectors will ask for anything -- even things they are not entitled to.

Before the Food Safety Modernization Act, FDA inspectors were not entitled to laboratory results, sales data and a list of customers. During outbreaks, FDA had access to only records related to the food product under investigation, Durkin said.

But under FSMA, the net is cast wider and FDA can see documents for all foods similarly affected, "which is your entire facility," he said.

On the issue of splitting samples taken by FDA inspectors for a company's own analysis, Durkin advised companies to "be prepared to live with" the results.

FDA may not find anything in its sample, but the picture changes when the company's sampling ends up with a positive result.

"Do you really want to test it and live with what you find?" he asked.

However, an attendee of the morning session announced that in some cases FDA laboratories can come up with false positives and a company sample can be useful in setting the record straight.