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    PMA’s Food Safety Government Relations: A Different Approach

    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!

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