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PMA And United Agree On Federal Food Safety Regulation

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, May 24, 2007

The Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association have issued an unprecedented joint press release showing common ground on the issue of food safety regulation:

News Release
United Fresh Produce Association,
Produce Marketing Association Endorse
Common Principles for Federal Produce
Safety Regulatory Oversight

The Produce Marketing Association and United Fresh Produce Association Boards of Directors announced today that each association has endorsed similar resolutions calling for a federal food safety regulatory framework to protect public health and enhance consumer confidence in produce safety.

“We are pleased that both associations have reached an independent but common conclusion that produce safety standards must be federally mandated, risk-based and allow for commodity-specific regulation,” said United Fresh Chairman Emanuel Lazopoulos and PMA Chairman Peter Goulet. “Such standards should be uniform and should apply consistently to an individual commodity or commodity group regardless of its place of production,” they said.

“Both Boards of Directors believe that our industry must work together to support appropriate action and oversight by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in order to ensure public confidence in the food supply,” they said. “The FDA must also have the proper funding and support from Congress in order to provide leadership in setting commodity specific produce safety standards and overseeing compliance. We look forward to working together with FDA, as well as working collaboratively with state Departments of Agriculture, state Departments of Health, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assist in development, implementation, education and monitoring of food safety practices.”

As an example of this collaborative process, both associations point to the excellent work of the industry and government in California in developing quantifiable metrics for Good Agricultural Practices in leafy greens production. “These metrics can serve as a basis for FDA commodity specific guidance for leafy greens GAPs, taking into account needed variation in regional production and additional stakeholder input through a notice and comment period,” they said.

Both PMA and United Fresh will continue to encourage support for these principles among international, national, regional and commodity specific produce associations, working together with allies to ensure the most appropriate federal approach to specific produce safety measures.

The United Fresh Board adopted its initial statement of principles for the most desirable produce safety regulatory framework at its meeting January 20, and reaffirmed those general principles at its meeting May 5 with additional explanation of its recommendations. The PMA Board adopted a resolution following its meeting April 28.

It is fortunate that both PMA and United are thinking the same way because the Western Growers Association has different ideas.

In fact, in some ways, the board of PMA had to make a choice between the position of Western Growers and the position of United.

Everyone seems to acknowledge that some form of regulation is inevitable. WGA has been trying to drive the process in such a way that regulation will wind up under State Departments of Ag and the USDA. In addition, by using Marketing Agreements and Marketing Orders, WGA hopes for a process that will keep the industry in charge of writing the regulations.

To date the sterling example of this approach is the California Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement.

It was an enormous accomplishment to get it passed, get almost universal participation, etc. Hopefully, the new Good Agricultural Practices that the CMA board approved will help food safety.

Yet hidden within our coverage of the recent CNN report on produce safety was a sign of how this form of regulation actually plays in Peoria. In this whole CNN Special Investigation, this massive industry effort gets exactly one sentence. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the CNN correspondent, states:

For their part, many farmers and processors have responded to the outbreaks by signing new, also voluntary safety rules developed by the Western Growers Association.

In other words despite complicated explanations about how voluntary becomes mandatory after people sign it, this form of regulation just won’t be perceived as credible by the media and consumers.

United Fresh came to that conclusion back in January and its board adopted a Statement of Principles which it just reconfirmed:

Statement of Principles
and Policy Support For Strong,
Federal Oversight of Produce Safety
May 5, 2007

At its Board of Directors meeting January 20, 2007, United Fresh Produce Association first adopted a statement of principles and policy support for federal oversight of clear and strong produce safety standards based on the best available science.

At the Board’s meeting on May 5, 2007, this policy position was reviewed and again endorsed, with the adoption of the following resolution supporting these guiding principles for a food safety regulatory framework for produce:

To protect public health and ensure consumer confidence, produce safety standards:

  • Must allow for a commodity-specific approach, based on the best available science.
  • Must be consistent and applicable to the identified commodity or commodity sector, no matter where grown or packaged in the United States, or imported into the country.
  • Must be federally mandated with sufficient federal oversight of compliance in order to be most credible to consumers.

We dealt with these principles when they first came out in our piece United Calls For Mandatory, Federal, Uniform Food Safety Standards. There are a lot of caveats and detail but, bottom line, this implied FDA regulation of the produce industry.

Now the board of PMA has adopted a resolution:

To enhance our existing commitment to and strengthen public confidence in a safe food supply, the Produce Marketing Association Board of Directors supports federally mandated, risk-based, commodity-specific regulation of fresh produce. Initial efforts on lettuce and leafy greens should build on recent steps already taken at the state level in California. PMA recognizes that the federal process needed to put such a regulatory framework in place may require a multi-stage approach. PMA believes that federal oversight by the Food and Drug Administration should be the final goal of this process. PMA also believes that FDA must be provided with the proper funding to conduct this critical mandate and urges Congress to make this a top priority.

Although PMA and United have both bent over backwards to praise WGA and the California Marketing Agreement, PMA and United are really seeing the world quite differently than WGA.

The national associations can support these regional, voluntary or quasi-mandatory efforts because they can be done quickly and because the Good Agricultural Practices developed for these efforts can eventually be turned over to the FDA, but the national associations cannot possibly believe that consumer and regulatory confidence can be built or sustained with things like the CMA.

The USDA and the various state departments of ag are viewed suspiciously by consumer advocates as a too close to the trade. And in drafting regulations, although even FDA would depend heavily on produce industry input, that is not the same as the industry drafting its own regulations.

Besides, WGA has not come up with a realistic plan on what to do when someone decides to drop out of the CMA or, realistically, how to expand that to other states and commodities, much less how to apply it to Mexico and other countries we import from.

In fact, although the initial plan was to quickly follow the CMA, which applies to handlers, not growers, with a normal marketing order that all growers would vote for, WGA has killed that plan because, even now, after all that has happened, WGA doesn’t think it could get the votes.

This being so, how can we realistically think these types of agreements will get the support they need, if we are dependent on farmers voting to make their own lives more difficult?

Now the question is how will WGA, with its spanking new Washington Office — which we dealt with here, here and here — react? The industry has been concerned that division between United and PMA could weaken our industry in Washington, but maybe the split is coming in a different form.

Perhaps the national associations find themselves in agreement on most things and the split will be more between marketing and growing. If so, United and PMA may want to save this letterhead with both logos on it, there may be cause for other joint announcements such as we have mentioned here.

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