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    Not Off the Hook

    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.


    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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