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    Helping Consumers Be Food Safe

    Monday, July 28th, 2008

    Hello, this is PMA PR Director Julia Stewart and welcome back to PMA’s audio series, “Ask Dr. Bob Whitaker.” With us today is Kathy Means, PMA vice president of government relations and public affairs. Thanks for speaking with us today. Kathy, as we record this, the industry is still in the grips of a large Salmonella saintpaul foodborne illness outbreak linked to fresh produce items including first certain types of tomatoes and then later certain types of hot peppers. This outbreak is getting daily headlines, and is taking its toll on consumer confidence. PMA consumer research indicates that virtually every consumer knows about this latest food safety problem involving produce, and that their confidence in produce food safety has sagged yet again. Can you talk with me about what PMA is doing to talk to consumers about food safety, and to educate them about what their role is in safeguarding the foods they buy and eat?

    Kathy Means:

    Thanks, Julia.

    You’re right, consumers are the final link in the produce distribution chain, and they do have a role to play in food safety. Of course, the first responsibility for safety lies with our industry, and government has a role to play, too. Yet we cannot forget that consumers need to know how to best handle our nutritious, delicious products as well.

    Eleven years ago, PMA and other food associations recognized that consumers need consistent, credible, accurate information about safe food handling – for all foods. For this reason, we are a founding member of the Partnership for Food Safety Education, which seeks to teach consumers how to handle food safely. The partnership is a public-private nonprofit effort that includes industry, government agencies and consumer groups. Its four core messages of clean, separate, cook and chill offer simple, actionable, effective guidance to consumers of all ages. These reach consumers through both the “Fight BAC!” campaign and the “Be Food Safe” campaign. PMA contributes financial and human resources to the partnership. In fact, PMA President Bryan Silbermann serves as the chairman of the partnership.

    Beyond financial and staff support for the partnership, PMA also has funded development of produce-specific consumer guidance. These science-based, consumer-tested messages are free for anyone to use. They advise consumers to make sure the produce they buy is not damaged, and that fresh-cut items are chilled. They cover how to wash hands, and how to wash produce – and in case you’re wondering, our advice to consumers is to wash produce under running water, don’t use bleach or detergent. The guidance stresses avoiding cross-contamination, and advises cooking produce that may have become contaminated by raw meat or raw meat juices. And they explain when to refrigerate items and when to throw them out.

    Some companies have told me they’re concerned about talking about safety out of fear that it might raise consumer concerns. As I mentioned, these messages are consumer tested, and have been shown to reassure and empower consumers.

    The partnership has downloadable “Fight BAC!” brochures that companies can customize with their logo to use in their own consumer outreach programs. Or companies can link to Web-based information. “Fight BAC!” is a free resource that demonstrates a company’s concern for consumer safety.

    Speaking of resources, PMA members also have access to another free resource through the partnership. Its “Be Food Safe” campaign has been developed specifically for, and with input of, leading retailers and suppliers. It is designed to remind consumers about important safe food handling practices at the places where they shop for food. PMA members interested in promoting these preventive health messages can enjoy a free license to use the “Be Food Safe” materials if they sign up by the end of October 2008. Our members do not have to pay the licensing fee because PMA has already contributed to this campaign on behalf of its members.

    Consumers deserve a safe, healthful delicious produce experience, every bite, every time. One piece of that experience is empowering them to handle produce well through easy, effective education. These resources are available on PMA’s food safety page – in the Issues section of www.pma.com. Take advantage of them today. They’ll enhance your company’s reputation by showing your commitment to food safety. And you’ll be helping us spread the word about safe produce handling.

    Julia:

    Thank you, Kathy. As our nation struggles with obesity and all the related chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease – even among our children! – this is not a time we want consumers to be discouraged from eating the very foods they should be eating more of for their better health: fruits and vegetables. It’s good to know that there are tested tools to help us talk to consumers about food safety in a way that encourages and empowers them. Thanks to our listeners for joining us, goodbye for now.

    Not Off the Hook

    Monday, July 21st, 2008

    Hello, this is PMA PR Director Julia Stewart and welcome back to PMA’s audio series, “Ask Dr. Bob Whitaker.” With us today is Kathy Means, PMA vice president of government relations and public affairs. Thanks for speaking with us today. Kathy, as we record this, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has just lifted the advisory against certain types of tomatoes as that agency continues its investigation of the source of a large Salmonella saintpaul foodborne illness outbreak. Does that mean we are off the hook this time?

    Kathy Means:

    Thanks, Julia. You’re right – FDA has lifted the advisory against tomatoes, but no, that is not the end of the story. This investigation still is not complete, and no matter what, our industry and the government still have a lot of work to do.

    The responsibility for producing safe produce rests first with our industry. And meeting that responsibility requires that each company must embody a food safety culture, and must have a robust food safety program in use every day. Otherwise they should not be in this business. Beyond the industry, however, the U.S. government also has a role in produce safety.

    After the large foodborne illness outbreak linked to fresh spinach in 2006, we said we were just one outbreak away from legislation and regulation for produce safety. Well, here we are. We can expect both the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to move forward to both legislate and regulate our industry – in fact, we are already hearing the drumbeats from Capitol Hill and the agency.

    More than a year ago, PMA called for mandatory produce safety rules, to ensure that everyone operates on a level playing field, and to boost consumer and government confidence in our industry and the healthful products we market.

    We said we wanted mandatory good agricultural practices – GAPs – that apply to products grown in the United States and those imported into the United States. Those GAPs need to be commodity-specific, because we know that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to produce safety. They also need to accommodate different regional risks.

    Speaking of risks, we also believe those regulations need to be risk-based. FDA has identified those produce items most likely to be associated with a foodborne illness outbreak – melons, tomatoes, leafy greens, herbs and green onions – so let’s start there. That will enhance produce safety and build consumer confidence.

    Not only should these rules be risk-based, they also must be science-based. Guessing at good agricultural practices doesn’t do anything to improve safety, and it would add unnecessary costs and increase prices for consumers. That’s just foolish. We must call on the best and most-reliable science and experts to guide development of these rules.

    We also believe FDA should have mandatory recall authority. FDA is the produce industry’s safety agency, and if a company refuses to work with FDA when it requests a voluntary recall, then the agency should have the option of mandating a recall.

    FDA also needs adequate funding to carry out its responsibilities related to produce safety, and PMA supports efforts to ensure the agency has sufficient resources.

    We believe FDA is the end point for fresh produce safety, yet we recognize that there may be intermediate steps toward these science-based, risk-based, commodity-specific rules. These could be state or other efforts. Ultimately, though, the responsibility for government oversight of produce safety rests with FDA.

    As I mentioned, both government and industry have work ahead on safety. Each of us must understand how we can improve so that when the next outbreak occurs – and it will – the investigation and resolution will result in less impact on consumer health and confidence and less impact on the industry. Public health officials at FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must sit down with industry so we can talk about what got in the way in this investigation, on both sides, and how we can help each other better the next time.

    You can expect PMA to be at the table representing our members’ interests and working with our members continually to improve industry safety practices.

    Julia:

    So our industry now finds itself in a very different environment than we were in before the leafy greens outbreak of 2006. Some very important stakeholders in Congress and at FDA have simply had enough. Thank you, Kathy.

    And thanks to our listeners for joining us. Please join us next time, when we will talk about the impact of food safety crises on another very important group of stakeholders – our consumers. Goodbye for now.

     
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