(April 5) As federal officials continue to get an earful from industry groups concerned about the scope of new food security proposals, the issue is moving from a latent concern to a top priority for some grower-shippers.

Shortly after the Alexandria, Va.-based United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association outlined many of its concerns about security guidelines issued earlier this year by the Food and Drug Administration, the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association submitted similar comments to the FDA in late March. PMA cau-tioned the FDA on two issues about which it specifically asked for feedback — tamper-evident packaging and traceback/trace-forward procedures.

Fresh produce firms already have taken appropriate measures to protect their part of the food supply, but tamper-evident packaging “would be impossible in the fresh produce industry because of the diverse cooling systems used throughout the supply chain,” said PMA vice president Kathy Means.

PMA also advised that the record-keeping required for FDA’s proposals to institute traceback/trace-forward procedures for every produce item is an “unachievable utopia,” complicated by the wide practice of commingling fruits and vegetables in repack operations and on store shelves.

SECURITY DOCUMENTS

Also in March, the Washington, D.C.-based Food Marketing Institute commented on the FDA’s food secu-rity guidance documents. FMI, which represents 26,000 retail food stores in the U.S., implored FDA to let individual firms consider which measures best suit their needs.

“FDA must not use the documents as a basis for regulation, facility inspection or enforcement actions against food industry operators and should likewise ensure that the state and local regulatory bodies are aware that the guidelines are intended to be used only as guidance for industry,” FMI president Tim Hammonds said in his comments.

As for tamper-evident packaging, which conceivably would make bulk displays a thing of the past, Hammonds said, “Tamper-evident packaging should be employed where its use can be accomplished rea-sonably and effectively. ... However, if (it) would involve excessive cost or difficulty (e.g., wrapping apples individually) or would affect the quality or safety of the product (e.g., crusty french bread or leafy green vegetables enclosed in air-tight packaging), its use would be unreasonable.”

Donna Garren, United’s vice president for scientific and technical affairs, said her group’s Food Security Task Force hopes to release its produce industry-specific guidelines by May. She said elements in bioterrorism bills already passed by the House and Senate, and now in conference committee, could be excessively reactive to the events of Sept. 11.

REGULATORY CONCERN

A major concern among industry groups and individual firms: that the FDA is being granted unprece-dented expansion of its authority to regulate.

Until now, however, food security hasn’t registered as a top priority among many in the supplier commu-nity.

Some grower-shippers point out, for example, that the fresh produce supply chain simply isn’t an efficient way for a terrorist to deliver an attack on the population at large.

Butch Corda, general manager of Salinas, Calif.-based Growers Express, said his firm fielded some initial questions about its food security in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, but the issue has subsided since.

Growers Express showed buyers, for example, its increased internal security and tightened access to ranches, he said.

Others say food security remains a priority, although buyers may not be asking them to do anything in particular.

Mostly, growers remain concerned about federal officials overly emboldened in the war against terrorism.

That people actually are talking about something like tamper-evident packaging for the produce industry is reason enough to be concerned, they say.

“It’s completely irrational, yet when I think about things like the Endangered Species Act and all the man-dates we’ve had to put up with in the Northwest, nothing would surprise me,” said Tom Mathison, president of Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers Inc.