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From Wariness to Welcome: Engaging New England on Food Safety

(This blog post by Michael R. Taylor, FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, was published Dec. 4, 2014, on FDA Voice. It is the first of two posts about state listening sessions on updates to four FDA rules proposed to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act.)

What a difference a year makes.

In August last year, my team and I visited New England to talk about the rules proposed in 2013 to implement FSMA. We were met with skepticism and some genuine fear that our produce safety proposals did not take full account of local growing practices and would both disrupt traditional practices and deter innovation. These weren’t easy conversations, but they proved instrumental in FDA’s decision to propose — on Sept. 29, 2014 — updates, or supplements, to four of the proposed FSMA rules overseeing human and animal foods, both domestic and imported. These proposals include significant changes in the produce safety proposal and related elements of the preventive controls rules for food facilities.

Michael R. Taylor

We weren’t quite sure what to expect when we flew to Vermont on Sunday, Nov. 16, for a listening session the next day on the proposed supplemental rules. But the tenor of this visit was dramatically different, and very positive, beginning with the detour we took from our FSMA mission on Sunday to visit leading players in Vermont’s local food movement and artisanal cheese-making community.

Accompanied by Vermont Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross, we first toured the Vermont Food Venture Center (VFVC) in Hardwick, a regional food hub that leases space to small food businesses, providing kitchen equipment, food storage and business consultations. The goal of this modern, well-equipped facility, as Executive Director Sarah Waring explained, is to strengthen Vermont’s local food network and agricultural economy.

We then toured Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, a renowned maker of artisanal cheeses. We were welcomed by brothers Mateo and Andy Kehler, who have taken an innovative approach to making cheese using both traditional methods and the latest technology. Their goal is to establish a network of local farms that supply the milk, with Jasper Hill aging and distributing the cheeses in an effort to support small dairy operations.

Our goal was to continue the dialogue we started this year with the cheese-making community to better understand, as food safety regulators, what goes into making artisanal cheeses. We learned a lot, tasted some great cheese, and left impressed by the community-oriented commitment at both VFVC and Jasper Hill Farm and by their use of top-tier tools to strengthen Vermont’s local food system.

When we arrived back in Montpelier on Sunday night, the setting was like something out of a postcard. This picturesque town, the nation’s smallest state capital, was dusted in the season’s first snow, which only accentuated its natural beauty and charm. We were happy to be there.

On Monday morning, we drove to the Vermont Law School in South Royalton for the FSMA listening session. This school, set in the rolling landscape of rural Vermont, is renowned for its commitment to sustainable environmental practices.

We saw familiar faces. Some had come to the meeting directly from their farm — through the snow. There were people from all over the Northeast — people who had participated in our series of listening sessions throughout New England in 2013. But this time, the response and dialogue were different. We heard acknowledgement and appreciation that we had addressed many of their concerns in our revised proposals by making the proposed rules more feasible while still meeting our public health goals.

Much of the discussion focused on implementation of the rules, and, interestingly, some of the concerns echoed those we had heard in a Nov. 6 listening session in Sacramento, CA, a place not only on the opposite side of the country but so different in its production systems. Many are finding the complexity of the proposed rules daunting, such as the technical underpinnings of the E. coli benchmark for water quality and the various boundary lines and exemptions that determine who is covered. We’ve always said that we wouldn’t take a “one size fits all” approach, which has contributed to making the rules more complicated. This only underscores our responsibility to explain the rules clearly and to provide education, technical assistance and guidance.

Secretary Ross said early and often that we need to educate before and as we regulate. And he’s right. I am struck anew by the importance of our partnerships with state leaders. Vermont’s Ross and California Secretary of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross have been invaluable in helping us develop these rules, as they will continue to be as we move toward implementation.

We were grateful for the participation in the listening session by food safety advocates Lauren Bush and Gabrielle Meunier, who each spoke of the devastating effects of foodborne illnesses. Lauren almost died after eating a salad contaminated by E. coli in 2006, and Gabrielle’s young son fought, and recovered from, a Salmonella infection in 2008 after eating tainted peanut butter crackers. Their stories underscore the underlying reason for the effort that so many are making to implement FSMA — to keep people safe.

Some participants expressed the view that even though we decided to defer, pending further study, our decision on an appropriate interval between the application of raw manure and harvest, some kind of interval is needed to protect crops from pathogens. Some suggested that the 90- to 120-day intervals set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program be adopted as an interim measure.

Others inquired how the FSMA rules would affect them based on very individual scenarios. We asked them, and we’re asking everyone, to comment on the supplemental rules and include those scenarios for us to consider in drafting the final rules. We don’t want to create unintended harmful consequences.

The deadline for commenting on the four supplemental rules for Produce Safety, Preventive Controls for Human Food, Preventive Controls for Animal Food and Foreign Supplier Verification Programs is Dec. 15. Visit our FSMA page on fda.gov for more information.

Our Vermont trip was followed by state listening sessions in Georgia, North Carolina and Florida. I will be filing another FDA Voice blog on what we learned in those Southern states.

Food Safety News

Organic vs. Conventional: Pundits Are Welcome to Their Own Opinion, But Not Their Own Facts

Because Food Safety News holds an important perspective in the industry, I was surprised to see the website publish a commentary by Mr. Mischa Popoff.

Mr. Popoff has spent the last few years promoting his self-published book, Is It Organic.  He has made irresponsible and unsupported claims that 80 percent of all organic food in North America is imported and riddled with fraud — a grave disservice to the hard-working organic farmers in this country and their loyal customers.

The subtitle of his book says it all: The Inside Story of Who Destroyed the Organic Industry, Turned It into a Socialist Movement and Made Million$ in the Process, and a Comprehensive History of Farming, Warfare and Western Civilization from 1645 to the Present.

Whoa Nelly!  If you connect the dots, by looking at the other issues that Mr. Popoff writes about, and commonly published on ultraconservative websites (challenging climate change, defending genetically engineered food production, challenging the efficacy of hybrid automobiles and even parenting issues) you would have to conclude that organic food is a component of some kind of Bolshevik plot to take over this country.

He joins the father and son team of Dennis and Alex Avery, of the Hudson Institute, in taking every opportunity to denigrate the reputation of organics.  Many of the think tanks that support the Averys, and now Popoff, have received funding from Monsanto, DuPont and other interests in the agrochemical and biotechnology industries.  Companies that produce farm chemicals and genetically engineered seed quite rightfully might be concerned by the growing competition stemming from the shift to eating organically by consumers.

I encourage you to read The Cornucopia Institute’s backgrounder, Who Is Misha Popoff.

Popoff has had almost no exposure in the mainstream media here in the U.S., so it is disturbing to find his byline on Food Safety News. 

There is no factual basis for his thesis, articulated in his op-ed, that somehow organic food is more dangerous than conventional food and that the basis of the problem is the lack of testing for pathogenic contamination.

It is incumbent on all farmers and food producers to follow basic food safety protocols.  The organic law prescribes a set of standards for farmers and food processors.  Organic production is subject to the same regulatory protocols prescribed by the USDA and FDA and any applicable state and local laws.

In addition, Popoff’s essay includes the following inaccurate and misleading information:

1.      His claim that, “over 25 years of research has failed to find any harm from GM technology,” is patently false.  There’s been virtually no human health testing (not required by the federal government) and there have been almost no lifetime trials on laboratory animals (just short term studies).  Furthermore, there is a growing body of peer-reviewed, published scientific literature pointing to some significant abnormalities in laboratory animals and livestock being fed genetically modified feed.

Consumers choosing to eat organically are exercising caution by operating under the “Precautionary Principle.”

2.      He suggests that any organic food contaminated with pathogens should not be allowed to be certified as organic.  This is a specious argument because any food, organic or conventional, contaminated with dangerous pathogens should not be marketed for human consumption, period.

3.      He uses the example of a prior outbreak of contaminated bean sprouts in Europe as a model of organic production protocols run amok.  And he suggests that contaminated water might have been a factor.  However, producing bean sprouts is a high risk enterprise, be they organic or conventional, and using tested, potable water is universally a regulatory requirement.Most problems with contaminated bean sprouts, as the example he cited in Germany, are thought to emanate from contaminated seed which, again, is a hazard for organic and conventional production alike.  There is nothing inherently more dangerous about organic bean sprouts than conventional.

4.      His claim that organic food consumption in the United States is about 1 percent of the market is inaccurate.  I have seen authoritative reports pegging it at 3 to 4 percent with some commodities, like organic milk, being at about 6 percent, and fruits and vegetables significantly higher than that.  These numbers are based on market studies by the USDA, the Organic Trade Association and published by respected trade journals in the produce industry.

5.      He suggests that the director of the USDA’s National Organic Program, Miles McEvoy, took it upon himself to institute random testing for agrochemical contamination in organics.  The truth is that this testing requirement was part of the Organic Foods Production Act passed by Congress.  Pressure from The Cornucopia Institute, Consumers Union and other advocacy groups prompted an investigation by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General as to why testing had not been implemented as required by law.

6.      The cost of testing, sample collection and transportation requirements (sometimes refrigerated) for chemical residues and pathogens, as suggested by Mr. Popoff, on 100 percent of organic operations, would greatly increase the cost of organic food.  Cornucopia supports the 5 percent , annual, random testing requirement.  At this rate, the USDA will conduct over five times as many audits as the IRS currently conducts.  It is a prudent adjunct to the established rigorous annual inspection of both organic farms and facilities and all documents pertaining to organic management.

In closing, the fundamental precept of Mr. Popoff’s attempt to challenge the credibility of organic food production is flawed.  Organic food is subject to the same standards of cleanliness, and regulatory safeguards, as any other food in the market, imported or domestic. 

There is a history of inexcusable neglect during this presidential administration and prior administrations in the execution of food safety laws to protect U.S. citizens.  And Congress has been grossly remiss in failing to adequately fund the infrastructure and inspectors in the field, especially in scrutinizing imported food.  We should demand excellence from our government in this regard and we certainly are not getting it.           

Again, we respect the important journalism being done at Food Safety News, in putting pressure on the food industry and government to, literally, clean up its act.  Publishing Mr. Popoff’s opinion piece was an unfortunate aberration.

 

Food Safety News

Retailers Welcome Autumn With Bakery Ideas

With Halloween and Thanksgiving around the corner, retailers are targeting shoppers with a sweet tooth. The chains are promoting fall-themed baking recipes and store-made bakery products. 

In a blog post, Whole Foods called attention to the versatility of butternut squash with a pumpkin pie recipe and pumpkin cornmeal muffin recipe, as well as savory dish recipes like butternut squash panzanella salad. 

Fred Meyer is making an event of caramel apples and calling shoppers into the store for freshly made products.

Sam’s Club took a different approach to the classic caramel apple with a caramel apple cookie recipe.

PCC Natural Markets is encouraging consumers to embrace the colder weather, with a warm gooey dessert.

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Organisations welcome new food safety rules

Organisations welcome new food safety rules

Produce Marketing Association and United Fresh have both welcomed the two additional proposed rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“PMA welcomes the release of the proposed rules on foreign supplier verification programs and accreditation of third-party auditors from the FDA for several reasons: first, we know food safety is a top priority for our global produce industry and the implications of these proposals are critically important to our members’ businesses and to our overall objective of increasing produce consumption. It’s important that these proposed rules are geared toward advancing produce safety in a meaningful way for industry members that also protects public health.”

“As we continue to develop comments over the next few months, we’ll work with our global membership to submit commentary to the FDA. Once the FDA reviews all the comments submitted, they’ll revise the rules in a final form which will include a timeline for implementation.”

“We will provide an online summary of the proposed rules and will be conducting a number of outreach activities for members including scheduling webinars designed to describe key components of the proposals and answer member questions.

“The rules for imported foods and third-party auditor accreditation will have a critically important role in the safety of fresh produce,” said Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of United Fresh. “United Fresh will immediately begin a comprehensive review of these new draft rules and work closely with FDA to ensure that they contribute to our mutual goal of continued food safety improvement.”

“Initially, we don’t see any surprises in FDA’s draft rules on imported foods and third-party auditor accreditation,” said Dr. David Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology. “However, it’s important that we thoughtfully review them in a line-by-line fashion, including analysis of their interaction with other FSMA draft rules, to ensure they advance food safety and are workable for the industry.”

Publication date: 7/29/2013


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