(Dec. 5, 1:48 p.m.) The U.S. Food and Drug Administration may get an E for effort, but the mid-term grade on its year-old Food Protection Plan is incomplete.

FDA officials released the update Dec. 1, saying they are working with foreign countries, state and local governments, industry leaders and consumer groups on the plan, unveiled in November 2007. The agency is working with Congress to mandate some items in the plan, Commissioner of Food and Drugs Andrew von Eschenbach said in a news release.

Industry leaders said the agency had taken some positive steps forward in the past year.

Jim Gorny, executive director of the Postharvest Technology Research and Information Center, Davis, Calif., said FDA’s approval in August of irradiation for spinach and iceberg lettuce for food safety purposes in August was significant.

However, the industry is not embracing the technology, which has financial and consumer acceptance hurdles.

“Foodservice operators will be the first to prod their suppliers along, and I think fresh cut operations are the most likely candidates,” Gorny said.

The FDA, a target of the industry in the wake of the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak this summer, has opened lines of communication, said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, Maitland.

That dialogue on traceback issues has been open and very honest, Brown said. Like tomato grower-shippers from all producing regions, Florida’s industry lost millions when the FDA issued consumer alerts against tomatoes; extensive testing of tomatoes, in fields and on processing/handling equipment, turned up no Salmonella Saintpaul contamination.

“They are trying to get their arms around how to get traceback to where it is a productive tool and not an indicting process, and I’m encouraged by that,” he said.

Brown said the agency is attempting to improve its processes, including communication with the public and the media.

“These events are fundamentally science-based when they happen, but one sentence that may be poorly expressed became the next day’s headlines,” he said.

He said government and health confidentiality requirements have frustrated the trade, but the FDA is considering ways the industry can assist them early on in the event of an outbreak.

“Time is what kills us, the dangling in the wind,” Brown said. “Everybody in the industry has the same agenda as the government agencies looking after public health and that is to find, define and resolve it as quickly as possible.”

‘A good start’

Any progress the FDA has made so far is based on an outdated food safety regulatory system, said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. In a statement from her office, DeLauro again called for the FDA to be made an agency under the Department of Health and Human Services.

Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said the agency’s progress report was useful for the agency, industry and consumers.

“It’s a good start,” agreed Amy Philpott, vice president of communications for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C. “We see this first year as laying the foundation for the real work ahead.”

Philpott said United Fresh believes risk communication, transparency and clear authority to provide oversight are not fully fleshed out yet, but she said the association is encouraged that work is underway.

“We would hope that the risk communication advisory committee that has been established would actually look at establishing some guidelines for the way that risk is communicated,” she said.

Philpott said the FDA needs to consider the needs of consumers and the industry.

Both Means and Philpott said that FDA’s desire to have more authority should be answered if necessary by Congress, though there are still doubts whether the agency actually requires more statutory authority. The FDA has asked Congress for authority to mandate recalls and to use third-party companies for voluntary inspections.

“Whether the agency uses the authority they have or (gets) more authority, the end result we would like to see is we want some clear oversight of food safety standards that are based on science and take into account individual commodities’ challenges and characteristics,” Philpott said.

Both PMA and United Fresh are working on comments to provide the agency input on work to revise good agricultural practices.

“The industry has already been looking at commodity guidelines and GAPs even without mandatory guidelines,” Philpott said.

Looking ahead to the prospect of food safety reform, Philpott said that it is certain that the new Congress will consider food safety legislation.

Gorny said it is likely the next Congress and President-elect Barack Obama’s administration will be much more active concerning food safety.

“I think starting Jan. 22 you will see a new sheriff in town,” he said. “FDA has been constrained by finances, and if those constraints come off, you will significant change in enforcement capability and enforcement actions.”

Means added that Congress needs to respect the work of the industry on issues like traceability but expressed hope that real progress is possible.

“I think food safety is one of those bipartisan issues where there is not a big rift between Republicans and Democrats,” she said.

Brown said food safety appears to be a priority for Obama, and he said that a United Fresh working group is developing consensus positions on food safety legislation and issues like traceability.

“It is going to be important we have a science based, business rational program to put forward in working through the process,” he said.