The soon-coming passage of food safety reform legislation will be hailed by many as an important step forward in restoring public confidence in the food supply.

How costly is consumer peace of mind?

Tom Karst
National Editor

From the 40,000-feet view, that truly is the big story. In the wake of the 2006 spinach E. coli outbreak, tainted food ingredients and fouled pet food from China, the bungled 2008 Salmonella Saintpaul investigation, there came a signature moment when food safety reform become inevitable.

From a Feb. 2 report in the Huffington Post:

“At a bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter. That’s what Sasha eats for lunch,” President Obama said, referring to his 7-year-old daughter.

Playing against the president’s daughter, the Peanut Corporation of America was the dastardly villain and Exhibit Z, as if any more were needed, on why food safety reform was necessary.

The produce industry may get fitted for a white hat when overview stories are written about passage of food safety legislation.

After all, the United Fresh Produce Association in January 2007 first advocated federal oversight of “clear and strong produce safety standards based on the best available science.”

“We want mandatory regulation, and that’s a big sea change for us,” United Fresh president Tom Stenzel said at the time.

Stenzel stressed that mandatory, science-based federal regulation should apply to all growing areas.

Senate food safety legislation has been pushed back by as much as two weeks by financial reform legislation, Washington sources say. But it won’t be long before a bill is on the desk of President Obama.

Late amendments to the Senate package intended to relieve the regulatory burden for smaller growers.

One key amendment with an uncertain fate has been penned by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. Tester has proposed exempting food facilities with sales under $500,000 from preventive control plan requirements and from traceback and recordkeeping.

Could the produce industry live with such an amendment in a final bill?

From the perspective of self-interest, larger growers don’t want to be saddled with stiffer food safety rules than smaller growers. If a food safety regulation is necessary, it should be applied to all without favor. Can science justify different treatments of large and small operations?

Even a more detached viewing of the issue calls into question whether consumer confidence would be as robust for blatant exemptions for farms with less than $500,000 in sales. What, a company with $501,000 in sales is more risky than a firm with $499,000?

Another proposed amendment by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, seeks to secure exemptions from traceback recordkeeping requirements for direct farmer-to-consumer, farmer-to-stores and farmer to restaurant sales.

From preventive controls on the farm to traceability requirements, the regulations resulting from the food safety legislation will take years to finalize.

The cost of the food safety bill will be immense.

It is safe to say that not all the costs incurred will result in empirical evidence of improved food safety.

Yet in a way, every penny paid will count toward restoring consumers’ peace of mind and confidence in fresh produce.

Perhaps it is too soon to say if the cost for achieving that result for fresh produce will be worth it. That may largely depend on the competence of regulators.

Right or wrong, it will seem less of a bargain if growers under $500,000 in sales are exempt.

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On a food safety related note, Michael Taylor of the Food and Drug Administration will address the United Fresh Produce Association expo on April 21.

Taylor is a late but prized addition to the schedule and will speak that morning to the general session, Ray Gilmer of United Fresh tells me. Gilmer said Taylor will address the status of produce safety regulation.

E-mail tkarst@thepacker.com

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