(UPDATED COVERAGE, July 9) The White House plans to take an active role in preventing foodborne illness outbreaks, targeting salmonella and E. coli, and is allocating more resources for the effort, including development of new commodity-specific guidelines and better collaboration on investigations.
The first step for fresh produce in the new food safety agenda announced July 7: commodity-specific guidelines for leafy greens, tomatoes and melons. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Agency are expected to release draft proposals for these commodities by the end of July.
“Nobody really knows what’s going to be in those documents when they come out, but hopefully the existing (California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement) will serve as a model for any of these regulations moving forward,” said Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the organization.
After the draft documents circulate, the USDA and FDA should have final regulations within two years, said Bryan Silbermann, president of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association. Silbermann attended the news conference on food safety agenda at the White House.
“PMA and others have been calling for commodity-specific regulations based on risk for more than two years now,” Silbermann said. “The devil’s going to be in the details, and we haven’t seen the details yet.”
The commodity-specific regulations make up just one piece of the new food safety goals for the country, which were developed by President Barack Obama’s Food Safety Working Group. The working group consists of Cabinet-level government officials and consulted by industry groups.
“This is, when you think about it, probably long overdue,” Vice President Joe Biden said during the news conference. “In many ways, food safety is unchanged since 1907. The law hasn’t changed, but our world has.”
Biden referred to the country’s reliance on imported food, giving an example of how often U.S. consumers eat vegetables from South America.
“Our world has changed,” he said.
Biden was joined by Tom Vilsack, secretary of agriculture, and Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services, who co-chaired the working group. The group’s major focus is on prioritizing prevention, strengthening surveillance and enforcement and improving response and recovery, Biden said.
“Today’s White House announcement demonstrates how the government and the food industry can work together to make meaningful and practical food safety improvements,” said Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, in a news release.
United Fresh offered suggestions to the working group. In the days following the news conference, other organizations, including the National Restaurant Association, Food & Water Watch, Food Marketing Institute and the Produce Safety Project, announced support for the proposed food safety agenda.
“The administration’s plan embraces several key recommendations advanced by United Fresh to help ensure that food safety initiatives address produce industry priorities,” Stenzel said in the release.
The plan includes calls for the establishment of a centralized command and control authority to manage outbreaks and recalls, and the creation of a deputy food commissioner position with the FDA and a chief medical officer position with USDA. Neither position had been filled by July 9.
Within three months, the FDA plans to release a draft plan on traceback for the entire food industry.
“We’re on track in the product industry with the Produce Traceability Initiative,” Silbermann said July 7. “We’ve spent a lot of time briefing people in FDA and on the Hill about what that is about, and we have another meeting (July 8) with the FDA.”
Leafy greens, melons and tomatoes were not the only agricultural products singled out in the food safety goals. Eggs, poultry and beef are also expected to receive stricter rules, including more testing and refrigeration as preventative measures.
More information on the working group is at www.foodsafetyworkinggroup.gov.