The Food and Drug Administration is responding with bigger budgets, more inspections and increased staff to the "special safety challenges" presented by fresh produce, FDA associate commissioner for food David Acheson told the House Agriculture subcommittee on horticulture and organic agriculture.

In his May 14 remarks to the subcommittee chaired by Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., Acheson said the FDA is in the midst of revising its 1998 Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Hazards for Fresh Produce. He said that will provide updated Good Agricultural Practices and Good Manufacturing Practices for fresh produce growers, shippers and packers.

In addition, Acheson said the FDA is developing commodity specific guidance for lettuce, leafy greens, melons and tomatoes. Similar guidelines, he said, will be developed for herbs and green onions "in the near future."

He said FDA is asking Congress for the authority to put on preventive controls for foods, enhanced authority to inspect food facilities' food safety records during routine inspections and the authority to require food facilities to renew their FDA registrations more often. Acheson said that FDA also believes Congress should provide mandatory recall authority to the agency.

FDA's food safety efforts, changes receive mixed reactions

FDA associate commissioner for food David Acheson says the FDA is asking Congress for the authority to put on preventive controls for foods, enhanced authority to inspect food facilities' food safety records during routine inspections, and the authority to require food facilities to renew their FDA registrations more often.

One lawmaker said industry may be uncomfortable with more aggressive FDA regulation at the farm level.

"I know many producers in my state have concerns about the FDA regulating on-farm activities. I share these concerns based on the recognition that while FDA has vast expertise regulating food processing, the agency has little expertise or infrastructure to fairly and effectively regulate farm production practices," said Subcommittee Ranking Member Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, in a news release.

Industry input

In his testimony, Joe Pezzini, chief operating officer for Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, Calif., and chairman of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, recounted the positive experience of the industry with the agreement and told the members of the subcommittee that that a national leafy greens marketing agreement is being readied for rulemaking by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Philip LoBue, president of LoBue Bros Inc., Lindsay, Calif., told lawmakers the citrus industry has not had any food safety issues in his more than 30 years in the industry. Because citrus has not been associated with any foodborne illness outbreak, LoBue said it is important that any food safety mandates Congress puts in place must account for the relative risk of each commodity.

"We shouldn't be burdened by a multitude food safety audits so others can market their food safety awareness program," he said.

One industry speaker at the event asked that lawmakers give state maximum flexibility in setting food safety standards for growers. In fact, Steve Hirsch, partner in Hirsh Fruit Farm Inc., Chillicothe, Ohio, member of Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association and vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said food safety measures should be established at the state level.

"My point, of course is that a single national, one-size-fits-all structure will not work and a national food safety system that allows for specific on-farm practices to be developed at the state level will achieve the best results," he said.

He said there are several issues within the draft National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement that are of concern to Ohio growers. Those features include several water use issues, animal intrusion and boarder distances surrounding crops, he said. "These specifics were designed around California's cultural practices and are not conducive to Ohio and many other states' accepted practices," Hirsch said.

Charles Wingard, director of field operations for Walter P. Rawl & Sons, Pelion, S.C., said costs, multiple food safety audits and inconsistent scoring of audits are challenges to industry. He noted that one third party auditor may focus heavily on land use and water quality, while another will concentrate on paperwork and records.

"I was told during a recent audit that my portable toilet facility (PTF) was located at the wrong place and lost points," he said. "Six months later, during another audit by the same third party company but by a different inspector, the second inspector suggested that my PTF go back to where the first inspector said to move it from."

Wingard said that industry action was the most important defense against food safety problems but he called lawmakers to boost food safety oversight efforts.

"A a federal food safety system must also be elevated that maintains the confidence in eating healthy fresh fruits and vegetables; can deal with the rare problems without destroying public confidence; and doesn't kill the industry or sweep all products into the same bucket," he said.