(Sept. 9, 12:28 p.m.) WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the fresh produce industry, Congress and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration prepare to add layers of food safety regulation to the produce supply chain, U.S. Department of Agriculture fruit and vegetable advisory committee members heard a voice of caution.

At the committee’s Sept. 8 meeting, Caralea Arnold, research associate with The Cornucopia Institute, Cornucopia, Wis., asked the members to consider the “collateral damage” new produce safety regulations may have on small growers.

In particular, she said the institute was prepared to aggressively defend the interests of family growers if their well being is threatened by rulemaking.

“In the form of a warning, The Cornucopia Institute (is filing) a federal lawsuit on Sept. 9 challenging the legality of the USDA’s almond pasteurization mandate,” she told the committee.

Arnold said The Almond Board of California and the USDA turned down a compromise that would have exempted smaller and organic producers from a pasteurization mandate by the almond marketing order.

“The result might be losing the rule that very well could have had legitimate application for the industry’s largest growers,” she said.

In prepared remarks before the committee, Arnold noted that organic growers already comply with numerous regulations, including measures that prevent spreading of raw manure on the riskiest crops and various other federal organic standards.

“They are inspected during the growing season by independent third-party certifiers that are accredited by the USDA’s National Organic Program,” she said.

Arnold said the institute encourages discussions of voluntary or mandatory protocols to consider the needs of smaller growers.

“We encourage you to enter into a dialogue with organizations representing the interest of local and organic growers in order to assure that they are not damaged by future rule making that addresses problems that they might very well may not be a part of,” she said.

Food safety perspective

Advisory committee member Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, Fla., said important decisions about the scope of produce safety regulations remain unanswered.

Stuart, a member of the advisory committee’ food safety/traceability working group, said the committee in February recommended that the USDA make marketing agreements and marketing order tools available for produce safety purposes.

He said progress by the industry on a federal leafy green marketing agreement is in the early stages.

“I can’t give you a timeline on it, but clearly there is significant amount of interest in the industry for it,” he said.

At the same time, he acknowledged there are issues to deal with — including the points Arnold raised about the effect on smaller farms.

“Industry is going to have to work through that, and my own personal standpoint is that we need to spend the time to do it right and not rush it,” he said.

However, a federal marketing agreement or order could be in place quicker than FDA regulation of the supply chain.

Regarding this summer’s salmonella outbreak investigation, Stuart suggested the FDA needs an industry advisory body to help give the agency feedback, in much the same way the advisory committee provides USDA with input.

“There were a lot of weaknesses exposed in the last few months, not the least of which was the ability of the FDA and CDC to come to a rapid conclusion based on available information to determine the source of contamination,” he said.

With the perishable nature of produce, Stuart said that lack of decisive action cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars.

Lack of collaboration

Other weaknesses uncovered during the outbreak investigation, Stuart said, included the lack of optimal collaborations between federal and state agencies, as well as interaction with industry.

For example, Stuart said the FDA should have asked the USDA for its expertise.

Looking ahead, Stuart told the committee that the salmonella outbreak investigation has hastened the timetable for possible produce safety legislation, Stuart said.

Stuart said dozens of bills have been introduced on food safety reform and regulation in Congress, with perhaps three or four bills having significant momentum and interest behind them.

“Clearly, something is going to happen,” he said. “What it is, is anybody’s guess.”

(Web Editor's note: When first posted, this article contained a spelling error in relation to Caralea Arnold, research associate with The Cornucopia Institute, Cornucopia, Wis. Additionally, the fourth paragraph stated an incorrect date regarding the filing of a lawsuit. These errors have since been corrected).