Giving the Food and Drug Administration the authority to require on-farm preventive food safety controls raised red flags for some panelists and members of the House Agriculture Committee considering the Food Safety Enhancement Act.
The full House is expected to take up the landmark food safety bill by mid-August, but members of both parties of the House Agriculture Committee expressed reservations about the bill.
"Directing the Food and Drug Administration to tell farmers how to farm will make food more expensive, it will threaten our food security and it will increase our reliance on foreign food, and it will not make our food supply safer," said ag committee ranking member Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., in an opening statement at the July 16 hearing of the House Agriculture Committee.
"A live animal, a plant actively growing in a field or a piece of fruit growing high up in a tree is not yet food and is therefore beyond the expertise of the FDA to oversee its production," he said.
Section 103 of this legislation will direct the FDA to issue mandatory on farm food safety performance standards in the mold of the food processing regulation model, he said. Goodlatte said resource constraints within the agency will lead the FDA to ignore the complexity and diversity of farming operations when setting regulation and add to costs. That's the wrong approach, he said.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., also questioned the legislation's implications for an increased FDA presence on the farm in his remarks.
Peterson said he will suggest language to the bill's sponsors to clarify that the legislation would not apply to livestock and grain producers.
"The fruit and vegetable people acknowledge there is a place for FDA, so it's a combination of clarifying it for grain and livestock farms and then having the regulation that the fruit and vegetable people want in the way they think is workable," Peterson said. He said he may not support the bill if the issue of FDA's reach onto farms is not resolved.
Carol Tucker-Foreman, director of Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute, Washington, D.C, agreed the FDA should not try to take away the authority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to oversee meat or poultry safety, but she insisted that FDA should oversee produce.
"There is a reason and some expertise to have them involved in produce safety," she said.
Tucker-Foreman said despite the industry-backed concept of a voluntary national leafy greens marketing agreement under the umbrella of USDA, she said the FDA needs to have the primary responsibility for assuring the safety of produce on farms.
"I don't think anybody anticipates that FDA will have a flock of personnel out on farms," she said, adding that the FDA has indicated it will work with state agencies to exercise oversight.
Later in the hearing, Michael Taylor, senior adviser to the commissioner of the FDA, said the Food Safety Enhancement Act would give FDA the authority to the agency to establish on farm food safety practices in respect to produce. In addition, he said the legislation would require the agency, on a risk basis - and where it would make a meaningful difference for food safety - to establish regulations for particular commodities and classes of commodities.
"The question is how we ensure compliance with the standards," he said.
Taylor said the FDA would work with state agencies to ensure adequate oversight. In addition, he said the commercial buyers of produce may play a role in enforcing the standards. "We would expect the private sector would do a lot of the enforcement."
However, Taylor said he can't yet define the scope of the FDA's on-farm inspection activities because the decisions on what commodities require risk-based standards haven't been made.
Drew McDonald, vice president of national quality systems for Taylor Farms, Salinas, Calif., said there has been great improvement in the bill but said the produce industry wasn't yet in a position to support it.
McDonald said that the Food Safety Enhancement Act does allow for commodity specific standards, flexibility for industry to utilize best practices for traceability and flexibility for processors in developing Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plans.
However, he found fault with language in the bill about product testing, funding of food safety oversight, geographic quarantine provisions.
"The Committee-passed bill contains language on testing that, if implemented, will not improve food safety but will generate confusion and costs," he said.
McDonald also said the FDA must be accountable, transparent and work with industry on food borne illness outbreak responses and recovery efforts.
Concerns were also raised among panelists testifying about new fees and record keeping requirements for small producers.
"Farms are explicitly included in extensive new recordkeeping, reporting and traceability measures which may not be feasible or practical for many producers Larry Wooten, a tobacco and grain producer from North Carolina representing the American Farm Bureau, Washington, D.C.
However, Tucker-Foreman, said she supported the Food Safety Enhancement Act as it is written.
"While we are sympathetic to the concerns of those in the food industry who may indeed have to make some changes in the way they do business, it is clear that H.R. 2749 has been structured to assure it does not place an undue burden on small farms or businesses," she said.
She said a recently released study by IBM revealed that 60% of consumer are concerned about the safety of the food they purchase.
In addition, she said the survey revealed that less than 20% of consumers trust food companies to develop and sell food products that are safe.
What's more, 83% of consumers could name a food that had been recalled in the last two years, and 63% confirmed they would not purchase a food until the source of the contamination was found.
Nearly 60% said they stopped purchases foods, even for a short time, within the past two years because of safety considerations.