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  • Archive for March 2011

    PMA’s Food Safety Government Relations: Prioritizing our Work

    Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

    Meg Miller:
    Hello, this is PMA public relations manager Meg Miller, and welcome back to our audio blog, “Ask Dr. Bob” with PMA’s Chief Science & Technology Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker. This is the second of a series of posts about PMA’s government affairs activities in the food safety area. In our last post we discussed PMA’s “solution provider” approach, to inform and influence government. This time, let’s talk about where PMA focuses its energies on food safety and its government affairs work.

    We’ve got a lot of exciting stuff going on, Meg, but one thing we place a priority on is providing written comments to the Food and Drug Administration. I’m talking about when FDA publishes notices in the Federal Register requesting comments to help inform their work, or about a proposed regulation. I have to admit I used to be skeptical about the value of written comments. When I first joined PMA, there were several different opportunities to prepare comments, and I have to say I thought it was a waste of time.  I didn’t think FDA really paid much attention to what we had to say. Boy, was I wrong! 

    What I found was that FDA didn’t just read PMA’s comments, they valued them and used them. In fact one time I encountered an FDA person at a professional meeting who actually had PMA’s comments with them and had been reviewing them on the airplane on their way to the meeting.  This person had made handwritten notes on them, and it really struck me how seriously FDA takes these comments and how impactful they can be.

    Our efforts in writing comments, along with some “get to know you” meetings that we had at FDA right after I started at PMA, have also led to other ways we interact with FDA. These include conducting field tours for regulators, and making phone connections – that’s what I call fielding those phone calls from FDA when they have questions on industry practices or food safety science questions. This work also includes what we at PMA sometimes refer to as “wise-person” visits – where we’re invited by FDA to spend time with staff to answer their food safety questions, on topics ranging from scientific issues to industry practices and enforcement. 

    Our approach as a “solution provider” – combined with our staff’s scientific and industry expertise and our members’ boots-on-the-ground expertise – have well positioned PMA to impact key FDA activities pertaining to produce safety.  And I can’t stress enough how helpful our members’ involvement is, whether they are testifying at a hearing or meeting, or participating in field tours, visiting their congressional staff, or giving us input on comments we plan to submit.

    So what do you see coming?

    Our focus over the next few years will be to influence implementation of the new federal food safety law of the land – the Food Safety Modernization Act – as much as possible. PMA supported this bill when it was first introduced because we believed produce-specific legislation was needed to level the playing field for everyone in our industry, and to help restore consumer confidence in the safety of fresh produce. (Meg, you’ll remember we had to withdraw that support late in 2010 after exemptions were added that we thought were counter to food safety.)

    Now that the bill has been enacted into law, our attention shifts to FDA, which is charged with developing regulations to implement the new law. If this was a football game, we’d basically midway through the second quarter. The industry has asked for regulation, Congress has responded with legislation and the President has signed it into law. FDA is analogous to the coaching staff that is now gathering information and getting ready for the second half. In our case, this second half includes the pre-rulemaking stage, the rulemaking process, and then getting the rules implemented.  Our goal will be to get regulations that will work as well as possible for our industry, and to help grow our markets, not limit them.

    So next time, let’s talk about our game plan for those different stages. Listeners, if you’d like more information about the Food Safety Modernization Act, you can find some great resources on PMA’s website, www.pma.com, in the Resources section – look for the Government Relations page. If you have specific questions on food safety issues, please email Dr. Bob at AskDrBob@pma.com.

    Thanks for joining us!

    PMA’s Food Safety Government Relations: A Different Approach

    Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

    Meg Miller:
    Hello, this is PMA public relations manager Meg Miller, and welcome back to our audio blog, “Ask Dr. Bob” with PMA’s Chief Science & Technology Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker. There is so much happening on the food safety front right now that we decided to do a series of posts about PMA’s government affairs activities in that area.  Bob, I know there’s a lot of ground to cover, so where should we start in this first post?
    Meg, lots of food industry groups are involved in government affairs, so let’s start off by talking about how PMA is different. For many industries, the typical approach to government relations is to be combative, to try to avoid government oversight wherever possible – understandable since past government oversight has often meant more work and cost. But in reality, our industry can no longer expect to avoid government involvement, especially on issues like food safety.  Increased regulation is our new reality, and in fact it may help us restore consumer confidence in the safety of fresh produce. The best way to ensure smart, cost-effective governance of our industry is to work with those who govern us, help educate them about our industry and ultimately develop solutions that work for everybody.

    For several years now, PMA has taken a “solution provider” approach, to inform and influence government. We don’t want to walk in the door of an office, say at the Food and Drug Administration, just to complain about some injustice; instead we want to be sure FDA understood the issue. Then we want to offer potential solutions that address FDA’s need to protect public health while at the same time not burden the industry with unnecessary requirements that don’t reflect good science or current industry practices. We view our role not as being there to argue, but rather to inform and influence. It’s a balancing act.

    So can I ask, how’s that working?

    We can already point to a number of recent examples when we and our members have told our stories and shared our industry insight – in testimony, during visits to Capitol Hill or different agencies, and in comments submitted about proposed regulations – where we know our voice has been heard and we’ve made a difference in the outcome.

    Another difference is our new Government Relations Committee, which met for the first time in January. Its mission includes overseeing PMA’s food safety advocacy work. Members aren’t professional lobbyists – and that’s exactly the point. They’re business people who want to help tell our industry’s story to government, to help inform and influence.

    So our strategic approach to food safety government relations is to “inform and influence”. How does that manifest itself, exactly?

    We’ve begun referring to the food safety and technology work we do at PMA as our “practice”.  This practice includes our work in education, such as seminars, symposia, Fresh Connections, and food safety training – in research, for example, our work with the Center for Produce Safety – and in advocacy, that is, working with government affairs, outreach to regulatory agencies like FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Agriculture and visits to Congress. 

    Additionally, our work on government affairs has two distinct components. The first is operational. Our operational work is very member- and industry-focused. What do our members need to know to ensure safe food, and how do we help them deal with current and future food safety rules or requirements? This further breaks down into non-emergency and emergency areas. On a non-emergency basis, we meet with members routinely to listen to and help them when they have problems. On the emergency side, it seems not a week goes by without a call from a member involved in some type of traceback investigation with FDA or a state health department. We can help members interpret testing data, advise them on a course of action, and even help with communications strategies.

    You mentioned there are two components?

    Yes, Meg, the second is governmental. Our work with government is really split between working with members of Congress and their staff, and working with the regulatory agencies. We work to improve their knowledge of our industry, and of the science of food safety. Often the information they need is as simple as where particular crops are grown at different times of the year, or how products are harvested and handled. We also extend into microbiology, genetics, and physiology — the science behind food safety.

    Related to all this is the interaction we have with the academic community on food safety research. It’s an important bridge between our operational focus in helping members navigate government affairs and our efforts to work with the government directly. By working with the academic community to educate researchers on what our industry does, we can shape their food safety research to yield findings that our members can use to build science and risk-based food safety programs that will improve industry’s food safety performance. At the same time, we can also use this interaction to help ensure the government agencies that fund research, fund the best research.

    The Center for Produce Safety in particular has taken on this task of working closely with our funded researchers to help them understand current industry practices and establish working relationships with individual companies, so their work is relevant to our industry.  Time will tell how valuable this approach is, but thus far I believe we are seeing fantastic productivity from researchers, and very effective interaction between the research community and the produce industry.  We will actually feature a session at the CPS’s second annual Research Symposium in Orlando, Florida in June on this interaction between industry and research.  I should also note that CPS has partnered with FDA to hold symposia where research priorities are discussed with industry. This helps complete the circle of academic food safety research, the industry and FDA working together to influence regulations based on science and risk.

    Thanks so much, Bob. It is great to see how all these programs are connected and the scope of the work PMA and our volunteers are doing on food safety and government affairs. Next time we’ll talk about our specific areas of activity. Listeners, you can learn more about any of our food safety topics at AskDrBob.pma.com. Thanks for joining us!

    Product Testing, Part 11: Final Thoughts

    Tuesday, March 15th, 2011


    Julia Stewart:
    Hello, this is Julia Stewart, and welcome back to PMA’s audio blog, “Ask Dr. Bob” with PMA’s Chief Science & Technology Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker. Bob, we’ve just devoted 10 posts to talking about the in’s and out’s of testing fresh produce for food safety. So, let’s hear it, bottom line, what’s your thinking?

    Let’s be straight, right up front, our industry has seen far too many outbreaks, and we must be fully committed to the safety of our products. If product testing could keep contaminated produce from getting into the supply chain and making people sick, then the issues of supply chain disruption and added cost would be moot. At the very least, the supply chain issues with regard to perishability and the costs associated with product testing would have to be considered in context with other costs involved in implementing a comprehensive food safety program – and the marketplace would ultimately determine how best to sustainably absorb those costs.

    In our previous posts on product testing, we’ve tried to lay out some of the benefits and limitations of the various types of tests currently being used in the industry. We’ve discussed the very real issues associated with product sampling.  We have tried to do this with an eye on the perishable nature of our products, and some of the science that lies behind current testing methods.  I hope our listeners have picked up a few nuggets to help them as they assess how to set up their own product testing programs.  As far as whether you should or should not do product testing, that’s a decision that each producer has to address individually.

    In reality, when it comes to product testing, it seems that the “horse is already out of the barn”.  While the scientific basis of product testing is arguable with current technologies, the marketplace is making some form of product testing a requirement of suppliers of some commodities.  Essentially, that moves the issue of product testing from a scientific debate to a business decision.  We can understand why buying organizations might want their suppliers to do product testing from a liability perspective.  I’ve even heard from some buying organizations that believe their requirements for product testing, while it may have limited preventative value presently, will actually help the industry to produce safer food in the future by forcing the supply side to examine all risk factors.  I have to admit, the issue of product testing has kept food safety in the forefront of industry’s focus.

    Simultaneously, we see a science-based group like the Food and Drug Administration that, despite being clearly aware of the technical pitfalls of product testing, is nonetheless increasingly using product testing to do surveillance in the marketplace.  That reality alone means the produce industry has to continue to focus on some of the issues we’ve raised in this series. Each company must be sure they fully understand what these tests mean and what actions they will take should their in-house testing program or a government testing program turn up a “positive” result for their products. 

    So what’s the bottom line?

    Bottom line, Julia… product testing is just one tool in our food safety toolbox. Companies that think they can test their way to safety with today’s technologies are potentially whistling in the wind, as they say.  Product testing is clearly a part of our landscape, but sometimes I wonder if all the resources that went into testing were instead leveraged against preventing contamination in the first place, whether our industry’s overall food safety performance might be more improved.

    Product testing and sampling is clearly an area where further research is needed and I urge our listeners to use the Center for Produce Safety, the local universities and cooperative extensions, and other resources to closely monitor new innovations and developments in this area.

    This is certainly a challenging area for the industry and for researchers alike. Well, this concludes our series on product testing.  In addition to listening to these and other Ask Dr. Bob blog posts, we invite PMA members to visit our new online Food Safety Resource Center on PMA.com. We are regularly posting new food safety content there to help you meet your company’s food safety needs.

    Please email us at askdrbob@pma.com if you’ve got a question you’d like to see Dr. Bob address in a future post. Thanks for joining us! In addition to listening to these and other Ask Dr. Bob blog posts, we invite PMA members to visit our new online Food Safety Resource Center on PMA.com and check out the lab testing white paper in the Education section.