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Joint food-safety effort launched by U.S. and Mexico

After months of discussions, the primary food-safety agencies for the United States and Mexico signed a statement of intent July 21 to form a partnership to promote the safety of fresh agricultural products.

Officials from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, along with Mexico’s National Service for Agro-Alimentary Public Health, Safety & Quality, and Federal Commission for the Protection from Sanitary Risks met in Mexico on July 21 to discuss food-safety concerns and reached an agreement on a food-safety document. Following the meeting, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg discussed the signing of the statement of intent in her blog, calling it “the latest example of the successful collaboration to reduce the increased risk of foodborne illnesses that naturally comes with a more globalized market.”

According to the agreement, the three agencies will work together to identify practices to prevent contamination during the growing, harvesting, packing, cooling and transportation of fresh fruits and vegetables. They will also work on verification measures to ensure these preventive practices are working.

The statement of intent spells out several initiatives, including exchanging information to better understand each other’s produce safety systems; developing effective culturally specific education and outreach materials that support industry compliance with produce safety standards; identifying common approaches for training auditors who will verify compliance with such standards; and enhancing collaboration on laboratory activities, outbreak response and traceback activities.

Officials from all of the agencies praised the effort, calling it a “milestone.”

Hank Giclas, vice president of science, technology and strategic planning for Western Growers Association in Irvine, CA, also praised the concept. “FDA and Mexico have been working together (on food-safety issues) in the past, so I do not believe this will result in any dramatic changes immediately, but it does formalize that process and, as I understand it, will help define best practices and enhance collaboration in the future.”

He said this type of agreement will become very important when the rules from the Food Safety Modernization Act are finalized.

Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Nogales, AZ-based Fresh Produce Association of The Americas was present at the signing of the document and was especially encouraged by the statements of the U.S. officials. FPAA largely represents U.S. distributors of Mexican produce. He said FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods & Veterinary Medicine Michael Taylor commented that the collaboration should lead to less reliance on testing at the border and a greater effort at verifying best practices at the farms within Mexico. The FDPAA executive said currently the testing at the border, and the “hold” on the product as those tests are being analyzed, is the primary method used to verify the safety of the product. Those “holds” are economically impactful and Jungmeyer indicated an effort to move verification procedures to the field would be welcome.

He characterized the signing statement as recognition of the collaboration that has already been taking place. He said Mexican inspectors have spent time in U.S. labs cross training and have taken the expertise back to their colleagues in Mexico.

“This is a very positive thing for the fresh produce industry,” he said, “and recognition of the work (in food safety) that SENASICA) has been doing.”