National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

The speed limit signs will be posted, but will there be any cops to enforce them?

Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, made an interesting analogy along those lines at a May 16 workshop of wholesalers and distributors during United Fresh’s show.

The workshop had excellent content about the benefits of warehouse management systems, but a portion of the time was spent discussing the effect of food safety regulations on wholesalers and distributors.

When asked about the Food and Drug Administration’s ability to fund enforcement of food safety regulations the agency is now writing, Stenzel compared the future scenario to speed limit signs and the highway patrol.

The FDA is going to be posting speed limit signs all over the produce world in the next few years, the analogy goes. The speed limits may be more likely set at 55 mph rather than 75 mph, to be sure.

But Stenzel concluded that the FDA may not be clocking the radar gun on every highway and country road when the highway limits are finally posted.

Is there going to be a cop watching as you go down the highway? Probably not, Stenzel said.

It would be perhaps wiser to build a food safety system that could match its funding, rather than overbuilding regulations and relying on a ghost enforcement system. In any case, the FDA will be relying on industry goodwill and independent resolve to implement food safety regulations.

On other food safety notes hit during the wholesaler session, Stenzel observed that many commodity groups have been telling him that growers of X or Y commodity believe they should be exempt from produce safety regulations because “they have never had a food safety problem.”

It sounds as if Stenzel is cautioning such commodity leaders that the position of arguing for an exemption to food safety regulations is untenable.

Is it really wise for an entire commodity group to have a “go to market” message that “Yeah! We are exempt from FDA food safety regs!”? Not a great message to consumers.

Yet Stenzel believes the FDA may moderate its stance toward regulating all commodities in the same way. Perhaps there won’t be testing of water for some commodities, such as tree fruit.

With only a handful of commodities accounting for the majority of foodborne illness outbreaks, Stenzel suggested the FDA should use its limited resources by focusing on select commodities.

One New York wholesaler/importer asked if he would be responsible for the food safety certification of his Chinese garlic supplier. No firm answer, of course, since the FDA has yet to issue its proposed rule for foreign supplier verification.

At this point, the likely answer is yes, Stenzel said. The legal liability will fall on the importer of record.

Another audience member asked why an FDA official recently called for more comments on the produce safety rule.

With the deadline for comments now pushed back until September, Stenzel assured the questioner that the industry — and consumer groups — will have no lack of comments when the deadline comes. Consumer and trade groups are also waiting on other food safety rules to be published before they weigh in.

One hopes that United Fresh and the Produce Marketing Association will consult with each other about the produce safety comments that are filed by the respective groups.

To make a finer point, what good would it be to have disagreement between the two national trade associations about food safety rules? If there is a lack of harmony, the FDA could discount the industry’s position entirely.

But if United Fresh and PMA harmonize their comments before the FDA deadline for input, what is the point of having separate food safety staffs and volunteer councils?

As much as the strong showing of United Fresh at San Diego put the talk of a merger with PMA 1,000 miles in the rear-view mirror, the redundancy of the two organizations on the issue of food safety industry input to government agencies is still an issue to be addressed going forward.