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    The Real Danger of the Dirty Dozen List

    Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

    Julia Stewart:
    Hello, this is PMA PR Director Julia Stewart, and welcome back to PMA’s audio blog, “Ask Dr. Bob” with PMA’s Chief Science and Technology Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker. Bob, we’ve got a guest with us today as we welcome Marilyn Dolan, executive director of the Alliance for Food and Farming. Over the years, there’s been continuing media coverage of misleading information about produce pesticide levels. Most recently, what’s being called the “Dirty Dozen Report” inaccurately names specific fruits and vegetables as having unsafe pesticide residues that impact health.

    Bob, can you share some insight on this all too familiar food safety concern?

    Bob:
    Yes, Julia. Unfortunately this issue continues to rear its ugly head despite industry’s past efforts to counter it.  We’re pleased to have Marilyn with us today to share some perspective and reality on this with our listeners.

    Over the years we’ve seen inaccurate claims made by activist groups about unsafe levels of pesticides in produce. These claims threaten consumers’ confidence in the safety or wholesomeness of fresh produce, and PMA believes we must respond aggressively to restore confidence and increase consumption. To date, without sound science at hand, our industry hasn’t been able to effectively contest these scare tactics with facts. Meanwhile, new research indicates that negative attention is taking a toll on consumer confidence in all fresh produce, not just the commodities being singled out in publications like this Dirty Dozen report. Marilyn, welcome…can you tell us more?

    Marilyn:
    Thanks Bob.  This is a critical issue for the industry, evidenced by the fact that more than 90 percent of consumers report that they are “somewhat to very concerned” about pesticide residues on food.  In response, the Alliance for Food and Farming is teaming up with PMA to launch a new campaign this month called “The Real Danger of the Dirty Dozen List”. It will counter these misleading claims and promote the real facts about pesticide residues on our food. At the core of the campaign is a comprehensive review of the Dirty Dozen report by an expert panel of scientists. This review examines the list rankings, methodology, and scientific evidence linking pesticide residues to health effects.

    Julia:
    I’ve been working crisis communications in the produce industry for a number of years now, including on this issue. So I know what a much-needed campaign this is for our industry to finally have. Bob, could you explain more about PMA’s support for it?

    Bob:
    Sure, PMA is supporting this effort as part of our ongoing mission to identify and respond to emerging issues and effectively avoid or minimize their impact on our members’ businesses. We’ve been integrally involved in the development of this campaign from inception, including financially assisting with the campaign’s consumer website. PMA supports this new program, and others like it, that give year-round value to PMA members.

    Julia:
    So, Marilyn, what can we do to set the record straight for consumers?

    Marilyn:
    The Alliance for Food and Farming plans to reach out to consumer media and health professionals, and ultimately drive consumers to a new website with information specifically on the issue of pesticide residues on produce. The website address is www.safefruitsandveggies.com. We want consumers to know it is safe to eat all kinds of produce – conventional and organic—and that the current pesticide review process protects public health. If consumers are still concerned about pesticide residues, they should just rinse it. The campaign also provides proactive tools the industry can use to communicate with consumers about the safety of fruits and vegetables. With less than 2 percent of the population involved in food production, it’s more important than ever for each company to be an advocate for the produce industry by telling your great story to consumers. These tools are available to any Alliance for Food and Farming member on our website at www.foodandfarming.info.

    Bob:
    That’s absolutely right Marilyn! And, the ball’s in our court now. When the expert panel reviewed the Dirty Dozen report, they found that the currently available scientific data does not provide evidence to support the publicized findings. With factual tools in hand, it’s our turn to win consumers back, restoring their confidence in us and the products we market. We need to tell them our story with the same passion and conviction that we show each other when we talk about what we do.

    Julia:
    Thank you, Marilyn and Bob, for helping equip us to get out there and talk about this very important food safety topic.

    Listeners, I urge you to visit www.safefruitsandveggies.com to learn more about the Real Danger of the Dirty Dozen list. Now when you get questions about pesticide residues, you’ll be able to pass this information on and help assure consumers of your commitment to the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Thanks and please join us next time.

    FDA Commodity Specific Guidance

    Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

    Julia Stewart:
    Hi, this is PMA PR Director Julia Stewart, and welcome back to PMA’s audio blog, “Ask Dr. Bob.” Chief Science Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker is with me today to talk about new commodity specific guidelines currently being developed by FDA.

    Bob, FDA has just recently released the draft Commodity Specific Guidance for tomatoes, melons and leafy greens. So, what does this mean for those commodities and for our industry in general?

    Bob Whitaker:
    Julia, these current actions are rooted in a long history of work by industry to minimize food pathogens in our products. Back in 1998, FDA issued guidance to minimize the risk of pathogen contamination in fruits and vegetables which has now become known as Good Agricultural Practices or GAPs. Later, the industry and FDA recognized there were some crops that seemed to have repeated food-borne illness outbreaks associated with them, like tomatoes, certain types of leafy greens and melons. So the FDA asked the industry to develop commodity specific GAPs to try to identify what it is about those particular crops that makes them more susceptible to outbreaks and what can be done to reduce the likelihood of an outbreak. These three commodity groups worked diligently, with input from FDA, to develop their commodity specific GAPs.

    This July, at President Obama’s Council for Food Safety, FDA officials announced they would be coming out with Commodity Specific Guidance for these three crops, and on August 1 the agency released draft guidelines for tomatoes, melons and leafy greens. These documents should be very familiar to most of the produce industry, because FDA has basically taken the documents industry developed, made some changes based on what we’ve learned recently, and put them out as the draft guidance.

    We now have the opportunity to review and comment on these draft guidelines until November 2, to find where they are weak, overly prescriptive, or don’t make any sense for our industry. PMA is working with commodity groups and members to gather input, and working with other trade associations and regional groups to make sure we properly reflect the industry’s perspective. Then we’ll prepare and submit comments to FDA. Generally, FDA weights these comments and then makes changes where they see fit based on the feedback. This process will take at least a year, maybe two. After the comments are submitted, PMA will most certainly meet periodically with FDA to answer any questions they have and provide any technical information they need.

    Right now, both the GAPs as well as the Guidance FDA is working on are VOLUNTARY. Industry is asked to use these when developing their own food safety programs, and many of the auditing companies use these guidelines as a basis for their audit checklists. However, there is also a lot happening on the legislative front. The Waxman Bill has cleared the House of Representatives, and the Senate will likely take action on food safety legislation this Fall.  This is important because much of what we see as guidelines today could eventually become regulation tomorrow, so we need to follow all of this very closely and carefully. PMA’s government relations blog Field to Fork is a great way to keep on top of what is going on legislatively. You can find them online at: fieldtofork.pma.com

    Julia:
    Thank you, Bob. This is definitely an issue PMA will be watching and updating as things progress. Listeners and readers please do give us your comments. Thanks very much to our listeners, please join us again next time!

    How are growing areas removed from the alert?

    Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

    Hello, this is Julia Stewart and welcome back to PMA’s new audio series, “Ask Dr. Bob Whitaker.” We’re going to jump right in today. Bob, we have received a number of calls from members with questions regarding the process FDA is using to exclude tomato growing areas from investigation as the source of the Salmonella saintpaul outbreak so they can be excluded from the consumer alert. Why is this being done, how are these areas identified and are there any more areas that might be removed from the alert?

    Dr. Bob Whitaker:

    As you know, PMA, United Fresh and our tomato industry members have been working with FDA to help expedite the traceback, so that the region and perhaps supplier that is the source of this outbreak can be identified as quickly as possible. As I’ve mentioned in previous recordings, this traceback has likely been complicated by the fact that the traceback has overlapped the normal seasonal transition of tomato production as the weather warms in the southern areas and production begins to move northward. While a hindrance on one hand, this transition also presented opportunities, because it allowed areas to be ruled out if they were not in production when the illnesses began. As the industry, FDA and state officials have been able to produce documentation that these production areas were not harvesting red round, plum or Roma tomatoes during the initial onset period – or that region’s distribution to the marketplace did not match up to the illness distribution – they have been removed or “excluded” from the FDA consumer alert. So, so far 27 states and 19 counties in Florida plus 7 off-shore suppliers have been cleared to harvest and ship tomatoes. This has all been done to maximize the ability of consumers to eat fresh, healthy tomatoes and to minimize, to the extent possible, losses of farms and packers who were not involved with the outbreak.

    The last part of your question asked if there were any more areas that might be excluded from the alert that were not producing tomatoes at the time of the outbreak. As of this recording on June 13th, to our knowledge only one major tomato production area is currently under review by FDA, although there may be others. Momentum has been building to exclude northern Baja California in Mexico. Similar to other regions excluded from the alert, Baja was not harvesting tomatoes at the onset of the illnesses in April. PMA sent a letter to the FDA commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach yesterday supporting a review of the Baja situation. Others have also been working diligently to ensure the Baja supply of fresh tomatoes can be released as soon as possible. From comments made at FDA’s press briefing June 12th by FDA Associate Commissioner of Foods Dr. David Acheson we know that the FDA is working with the Mexican government and Baja state to review their harvest and shipping data to see if it can meet the exclusion criteria.

    While we impatiently wait for the traceback to run its course, helping regulatory officials as we can, we should pause and take a note that this mechanism by the FDA to exclude those regions not supplying tomatoes during the onset of the illness in April has permitted tomatoes in the unaffected areas to be harvested and shipped. As we move forward, we remain concerned for those who have been made ill during this outbreak, and simultaneously we hope to learn from the traceback investigation about what we can do to improve the safety of tomatoes in the future and to begin the task of rebuilding consumer confidence in our products.

    Julia:

    Before we sign off, I want to make sure that our members know about PMA’s staff experts in food safety and crisis communications, who are available for your questions and to respond to your concerns should you be involved in this or any other food safety situations. If you have not yet taken advantage of the expertise of PMA staff, I encourage you to do so. On food safety and science issues, please contact Bob, or Kathy Means. For assistance in crisis communications, please contact me or Lorna Christie. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time!

     
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