(March 11, 12 p.m.) Saying it is “simply unacceptable” for Americans to fear consumption of fresh produce, United Fresh Produce Association president Tom Stenzel told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health that the government is ill-prepared to make complex risk benefit decisions.

“We must all be able to trust the overall system of government oversight and industry responsibility, working together to produce the safest possible supply of fresh, healthy and nutritious fruits and vegetables,” he said at the March 11 hearing.

Stenzel recommended that Congress empower the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control to look at risk management decision-making in advance of an outbreak.

“The broad-brush approach taken with tomatoes, then jalapeños, is not an appropriate risk management strategy to best protect public health, either in the short- or long-term,” Stenzel said.

He said the industry has to be right with food safety every time, but he said that more than a billion servings of fresh produce are eaten every day and more than 5 million bags of fresh salads are sold every day. He also said only a few of the hundreds fruits and vegetables have been implicated on illness outbreaks, and then only rarely compared with their volume of consumption.

Consumers don’t understand what growers and processors are doing to protect produce safety and they also don’t have complete confidence in government oversight, he said.

In a question and answer session, Stenzel recommended that Congress should consider “untangling” food safety oversight from everything else at the Food and Drug Administration.

Other testimony

In his remarks to lawmakers, Jim Lugg, former executive vice president, food safety and quality at Fresh Express and consultant to Chiquita Brands International, urged Congress to require all food manufacturers to conduct a thorough risk evaluation to document every risk. He said that approach would be more effective than simply conducting more product tests.

Lugg said FDA inspections could be conducted frequently enough to verify companies are evaluating hazards and are implementing preventive controls.

“An acre of spinach has three million plants. Even if we take 60 plants selected randomly, the odds of finding a human pathogen are not good,” he said.

Lugg also said audits should be part of the improvement process but should not be mandated by the government.

One point of discussion at the hearing was whether requiring labs to report test results would cause companies to stop testing products altogether. Lugg said that requiring companies to report test results could cause testing to decrease.

Inspector access to the test records, not automatic reporting of those results, is the more critical issue, Stenzel said.

The hearing also featured testimony from Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Smith DeWaal said preventive controls are the core of a modern food safety system. Congress should require every food plant regulated by FDA to have food safety plans detailing that they have analyzed operations, identified potential hazards, and took steps to minimize or prevent contamination, she said.

She also said that FDA needs authority to set performance standards for the most hazardous pathogens and require food processors to meet those standards.

Regular and frequent inspections would assure compliance, and. FDA inspectors should be able to see food safety sampling results and corrective actions taken by food companies, she said.

“Relying on the Bioterrorism Act to provide records access for food inspectors is too little, too late. Congressional action is warranted and urgent to prevent future problems,” she said.

Smith DeWaal called for the FDA to have the power to mandate recalls and for a mandatory traceability system for the supply chain.

“The current system established under the Bioterrorism Act was inadequate for tracing fresh produce during the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak from April to July 2008, further documenting the need for new traceability requirements,” she said in prepared remarks.

The FDA also should also have the authority to temporarily detain domestic or imported food if it is unsafe, adulterated or misbranded.

“The current detention standard of credible evidence has proven too high and unworkable,” she said.

Lastly, she said that FDA needs a broader range of penalties to punish violators. She said the committee should consider updating criminal penalties to make it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison if people are injured and up to 10 years in prison if people die.