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Import-export shipping delays on agenda of upcoming WPPC

WPPC-logoWASHINGTON — All eyes may be on the Food & Drug Administration’s food-safety rules, but the United Fresh Produce Association is also keeping close tabs on problems that members may be experiencing in moving fresh produce through border crossings and ports, another food-safety topic on the agenda at this month’s Washington Public Policy Conference.

“One of the issues we hear the most is the [low] number of personnel who do the exams and inspections,” said Julie Manes, government relations director at United Fresh.

It comes down to resources and government cutbacks, she said, and the produce industry is going to “have to keep on top of this” to ensure agencies are staffed up to conduct the necessary exams, procedures and inspections.

During one of the business sessions at the Washington Public Policy Conference, to be held here Sept. 30-Oct. 2, United Fresh will discuss challenges for shippers and receivers in navigating border and port crossings to make sure highly perishable fresh foods are not compromised by delays.

Bruce McEvoy, global affairs director at Seald-Sweet LLC/UNIVEG Group, and Stuart Jablon, vice president of operations at Dole, plan to discuss the challenges and solutions at the Tuesday session.

Even changes designed to speed up processing at the port, though welcome, can create problems of their own for fresh produce companies.

Manes said she’s heard from members who complained about initial “glitches” with an U.S. Customs & Border Protection’s program that set up Centralized Examination Stations. CES are designed to speed up the examination process, reduce cargo delays and make the system more efficient.

In response, the trade association has had to contact CBP and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to call attention to the problems. Manes credits the government agencies with listening to the fresh produce industry’s concerns.

Another CBP initiative that United Fresh is keeping tabs on is a pilot program, Enforcement Link to Mobile Operations, known as ELMO, in which personnel are equipped with mobile technology devices to more quickly relay information on shipments.

So far, the pilot has been successfully tested at a maritime cargo port for recording results of agriculture examination that take place outside the CES facilities, and CBP plans to expand the ELMO pilot to other ports of entry, CBP said.

United Fresh does more than talk to federal regulators about import-export issues.

“We make sure some folks on Capitol Hill are aware” of government procedures that may delay crossings, she said.

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United Fresh to meet with FDA officials on FSMA at upcoming policy conference

New agricultural water standards is a top item of concern for United Fresh Produce Association leaders, and the industry has until Nov. 15 to comment on the sweeping new food safety rules, David Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology at United Fresh, said during an Aug. 13 webinar.

Expect the new FDA Food Safety Modernization Act rules to be explored at the Sept. 30-Oct. 2 annual Washington Public Policy Conference, where United Fresh gathers top government leaders each year to discuss issues with the industry.

Along with FSMA rules, United Fresh members will get an opportunity to talk to FDA staff on issues such as the cantaloupe sampling assignment, user fees and lessons learned during recalls and outbreaks at a Sept. 2 meeting hosted by the FDA at its College Park, MD, office.

United Fresh is holding a series of webinars on hot-button issues leading up to the WPPC, and during the latest one Gombas focused on the Jan. 16 produce safety rule that contains new standards for agricultural water quality used on covered produce.

“First thing we heard is water is the biggest issue,” he said, recounting meetings with United Fresh leaders on the new proposed rules. “Across the board, anybody who’s involved with the produce rule has concerns about what FDA has put into the proposed rule regarding pre-harvest uses of water.”

The FDA has proposed using as a benchmark a recreational water standard for E. coli for water that has direct contact to covered produce, which includes water used in irrigation, plant protection sprays or frost protection applications. The changes would be big for the industry. Farms would have to conduct mandatory E. coli testing and follow testing frequency. Farms using well water would test water every three months, a protected surface water source every month, and surface water subject to runoff every week.

Some water sources are outside the control of growers, weekly testing is costly and E. coli may not be the best indicator for a water safety standard, Gombas said.

The FDA also needs a better definition of “farm,” Gombas said, because the agency has listed many so-called processing steps a farm may routinely follow that may come under the “facility” definition and trigger the more costly preventive controls.

He said he encourages every commodity group to submit comments on the produce and preventive control rules that were proposed in January, and take a look at the two new FSMA rules on imports and third-party audit changes published last month.

The FDA says it’s received more than 1,000 comments on the produce safety rule, many of which are asking for more stringent controls, Gombas said.

On a related note, the WPPC meeting will come on the heels of the first public meeting FDA is holding on the latest FSMA rules, the Foreign Supplier Verification Program and standards for accreditation of third-party auditors, in Washington, DC.

Officials from the FDA will present proposed food-safety changes at the Sept. 19-20 meeting and give stakeholders the chance to ask questions and comment on the rules.

The Produce News | Today’s Headlines