(May 7, 12:00 p.m.) LAS VEGAS — Despite all the efforts the produce industry, retailers, foodservice operators and government entities have done to assure American consumers their food supply is safe, a recent United Fresh Produce Association survey reveals that only 1% of consumers feel it is safer in recent months.

Tom Stenzel, president of United Fresh, and David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the Washington, D.C.-based association, discussed the survey May 5 during the United Fresh Market Place opening session.

“Forty-nine percent feel (food safety is) about the same,” Stenzel said during the session, Food Safety Policy: State of the Industry. “And 50% of consumers don’t think food is as safe as it was a year ago.”

Stenzel and Gombas spoke about the industry’s efforts in working with Congress to shape legislation and programs to not only ensure best practices, but to reassure consumers that food is safe.

Gombas reminded attendees that it has been 10 years since the Food and Drug Administration issued a guidance document, titled “Guide to Minimize Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables.”

He said the good news is that science-based metrics still guide the industry today.

“Unfortunately, there were 69 produce-related outbreaks between 1996 and 2006, most originating at the farm and processing level,” he said.

He said the 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to fresh spinach has still left a lot of questions unanswered.

“What went wrong?” he asked. “There has been a lot of speculation about flooding, contaminated cattle manure and contaminated wells. No E. coli was found at the Paicines Ranch where the spinach was grown. The nearest field with the pathogen was three-quarters of a mile away.”

Since the outbreak, FDA inspectors have been working in the fields, communicating and collaborating with growers, Stenzel said.

“The bottom line is we have to build public trust,” he said. “But there will be another outbreak and when that happens, the government needs to stand up and say the industry is doing everything it can.”

Gombas said the FDA handled a recent salmonella outbreak involving Mexican cantaloupes entirely different than the spinach incident.

“They ID’d the farm right away and did not tell Americans not to eat all cantaloupes,” he said.

One attendee asked if a super food safety agency with recall authority might be the answer.

“The FDA is understaffed, and we’ve been shortchanged on scientific capabilities,” Stenzel said. “But people have seen what happened with the Department of Homeland Security, and it has made them hesitate about wanting a mega food safety agency.”

Stenzel said there remains a need for federal control. He said there were a greater number of oversight hearings concerning the Fresh Produce Safety Act of 2007, introduced by Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. That legislation would establish a national program to assure the safety of fresh produce.

Most recently, Jim Costa, D-Calif., and Adam Putnam, R-Fla., introduced the Safe Food Enforcement, Assessment, Standards and Targeting Act of 2008, which addresses regulatory oversight of domestic and imported foods.

“The key feature of this bill is that it gives equal treatment to domestic and foreign produce,” Stenzel said. “We have not endorsed it, and it may not pass, but it’s a good debating tool.”

Survey shows public trust in food safety lacking
(left to right) Tom Stenzel, president of United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.; Jim Bogart, president and general counsel for Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, Salinas, Calif.; and David Gombas, United Fresh's senior vice president of food safety and technology, at the Food Safety Policy: State of the Industry workshop May 5 in Las Vegas.