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Emergency Task Force Requested

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, March 28, 2008

The Honduran Embassy in Washington, DC, recently hand-delivered a letter written above the signature of Hector Hernandez Amador, Secretary of Agriculture and Livestock and addressed to Michael O. Leavitt, the US Secretary of Health & Human Services.

Demonstrating that this issue is spiraling way beyond a simple FDA matter, the letter was copied to various US officials, including the State Department and the National Security Council.

The Perishable Pundit obtained the full text of the letter which reads as follows:

March 25th, 2008


The Honorable Michael O. Leavitt
Secretary
US Department of Health & Human Services
200 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington DC 20024


Dear Mr. Leavitt:
I am writing to request your immediate action on an issue of the gravest concern to the government of Honduras.

On March 22, 2008 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an import alert regarding entry of cantaloupe from a single Honduran grower and packer. This was based on the belief that such product may have been associated with a recent outbreak of Salmonella Litchfield in the United States. Since the announcement, joined by representatives of the Honduran government, the company met on March 24 with the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) staff and provided extensive data regarding its preventive food safety systems.

Unfortunately, this issue has escalated dramatically over the past several days. All Honduran growers and producers of all melons are encountering significant resistance, not just in the United States, but in other markets throughout the world. Most customers are simply refusing to buy any and all Honduran melon products.

This action has precipitated a growing crisis throughout our agricultural sector. We are confronted with potentially devastating losses of jobs and income within a critical sector of our economy, and one which must function within an extremely short growing season.

While we fully respect FDA’s food safety efforts, we strongly believe that this calls for an extraordinary cooperative effort between our respective governments. We would therefore propose the immediate formation of an emergency task force comprised of appropriate experts from both of our governments. Such a group would be charged with:

  • Conducting a full examination of all data of potential health and food safety concern;
  • Conducting an immediate review of all Honduran growing and packing facilities to further insure the adequacy of our food safety system;
  • The resumption of import activity consistent with such reviews; and
  • Appropriate communication to the public

In order to be effective, the work of the team must begin immediately and it must be completed in a matter of days, not weeks. Given the length of our growing season, the alternative is the collapse of the melon industry.

Time is of the essence regarding this request. Please advise at your earliest possible convenience FDA’s willingness to work with us to cooperatively address this critical issue.

Sincerely,

Hector Hernandez Amador

Secretary of Agriculture and Livestock


CC: Ed Schafer, Secretary
US Department of Agriculture

Andrew C. Eschenbach, M.D. Commissioner,
US Food & Drug Administration

Julie Louise Gerberding, M.D., M.P.H., Director,
Center for Disease Control

Daniel S. Sullivan, Assistant Secretary
Bureau of Economics, Energy and
Business Affairs, US Department of State

Daniel Fisk, Sr. Director
for Western Hemisphere Affairs,
National Security Council

Christopher A. Padilla,
U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce
for International Trade

John K Veroneau,
Deputy U.S. Trade Representative

The letter points out that FDA’s actions have led to the collapse of a labor-intensive industry, which has only a short market window in which to function. The letter also points out that we have days, not weeks to resolve this matter if the industry is to be saved.

In calling for an emergency task force to be composed jointly of officials from both countries, Honduras is attempting to elevate the importance of the issue with a goal toward expediting its resolution.

The letter is carefully worded to respect the FDA process, and the purpose of the task force can be read as helping the FDA by expediting the receipt of any information it might need.

There are several dilemmas here. The US will be loath to agree to such a task force because how could the US then refuse China or any other country of the same treatment.

In addition, the Hondurans have to tread delicately. Although they desperately want the import alert lifted, it has to be perceived as being lifted because the FDA is satisfied that the problem is solved. If the import alert is lifted and it is perceived that it was because of diplomatic pressure, consumers will hesitate to buy the Honduran product.

We understand that FDA officials are now on the ground in Honduras. Our suggestions to our friends in Honduras are these:

The only real way out of this is for the Hondurans to allow the FDA to save face. The Hondurans should issue a press release that the Honduran government and Agropecuaria Montelibano have always made food safety the highest priority and that the country is thrilled to have a chance to learn from some of the world-class experts at FDA about some additional ideas on how to put Honduras’ food safety program into overdrive.

Then announce that the growers are using this time period to sanitize packing sheds, doublecheck suppliers and train employees in food safety.

By now the FDA knows it committed a blunder. The outbreak, if it ever had anything to do with cantaloupes from Honduras, was no longer a health threat by the time the “import alert” was announced.

The dilemma for the employees at the FDA is how to get out of the situation without being called up for Congressional testimony.

The official rule is pretty simple even if typically violated bt FDA itself… an alert gets cancelled only after the FDA gets evidence persuading the FDA that future shipments will meet all the legal requirements and any conditions that created the appearance of a violation are changed.

This is a tough one as, of course, nobody in Honduras believes there was a violation — and plenty of Americans doubt it as well.

Yet if the goal is to prove that to the FDA, to make them admit they were wrong, this melon season will be gone and next one rather uncertain.

When the spinach crisis came to the US in the fall of 2006, the produce industry and the FDA had to conduct a similar Kabuki dance. There was a two-step lifting of the recommendation not to eat spinach, which we covered in a piece entitled, Though Not ‘All-Clear’, Consumers Can Eat Spinach Again. The first step was a narrowing of the geography, from a national ban to one just affecting three California counties.

If Agropecuaria Montelibano could demonstrate that shipments now are coming from a different farm or packing house than they did when illnesses were being reported, FDA might soon reduce the scope of the “import alert” to only cover product from a particular farm or packing house.

From there, Honduras has to negotiate what will be the FDA prerequisites for starting shipping again. The initial plan in Salinas went like this:

  • An “industry restart cleaning”, in which all facilities are sanitized.
  • A pre-harvest audit to make sure good agricultural practices are being followed.
  • Monitoring of irrigation facilities and procedures.
  • A review of all soil amendments
  • And, if all this can’t be done or done satisfactorily, pre-harvest spinach testing.

The key is to let the FDA say that something has changed, something will have gotten more rigorous. Then hope that with the other pressure you have applied, the FDA will be looking for a way out.

It is hard for us in America to understand how important an industry such as agriculture can be to a place like Honduras. This letter is an attempt by a small country to have its voice heard. We, as Americans, ought to do our best to listen.

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