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United Fresh Teaches Government Officials About Imported Produce

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, August 8, 2007

Although government relations is often thought of in terms of policy, an awful lot of effort can go into educating government officials about the realities of the situation. United Fresh sent along this release pointing out its efforts to educate the recently appointed Working Group on Import Safety:

Federal Officials Visit Produce Port
As Part of Nationwide Food Safety Tour

Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt, FDA Commissioner Andrew Von Eschenbach, and Associate FDA Commissioner Margaret Glavin toured the Del Monte Fresh port facility in Camden, NJ Monday as part of a two-week tour of imported food facilities around the country.

With a banana vessel unloading Costa Rican fruit as a backdrop, Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt and FDA Commissioner Andrew Von Eschenbach speak with the media following a tour of Del Monte Fresh’s Camden port facility. (From left) Del Monte’s Ernie Casper, head of the Camden port facility; Ross McKenney, vice president of quality assurance; and Dennis Christou, vice president of North American Marketing, spoke with the federal officials about the company’s quality control systems from farm to the retail store.

“We were pleased to be able to show these top federal officials how fresh produce from around the world moves into the United States under rigorous security safeguards, with quality control an essential part of the total supply chain from farm to consumer,” said United Fresh President Tom Stenzel. HHS has been working with the association to identify potential produce facilities to visit in addition to their tours of meat, seafood and processed foods.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt speaks to the media following a tour of Del Monte Fresh’s Camden port facility. Joining the Secretary were FDA Commissioner Andrew Von Eschenbach and Associate FDA Commissioner Margaret Glavin. The federal team is conducting a nationwide tour focused on the safety of imported foods, and will make recommendations to President Bush for ways to enhance food safety.

Some 30 federal, state and local officials participated in the Camden event, as well as members of the national and local media. The group observed crews unloading a banana vessel from Costa Rica, toured warehousing and security of fruit after arrival, and joined in quality control testing with Customs and Border Protection officials who inspect product at the port.

In July, President Bush appointed Secretary Leavitt to chair a new Working Group on Import Safety bringing together expertise across multiple federal agencies. The Secretary and colleagues are touring numerous facilities across the country to better understand imported food safety and develop recommendations to the President on enhancement of safety and efficiency in the process. In late July, the federal team also visited a Taylor Farms processing facility in Dallas, learning more about the safety of processed vegetables and salads.

“One of the major themes we’re seeing around the country is that quality control must begin at the farm and follow products through the distribution chain,” said FDA Commissioner Von Eschenbach. “We can’t test our way to safety; it has to be built in before products come to our ports of entry,” he said. Earlier this year, Commissioner Von Eschenbach spoke to a large group of produce industry members at the United FreshTech conference in Palm Springs, sharing his views on food safety and seeking also to learn more about the fresh produce industry.

“It’s important that produce companies such as Del Monte and Taylor Farms open up their facilities to regulators, health officials and even the media to share our industry’s story about the rigorous food safety controls in place,” Stenzel said. “It was gratifying to talk with Secretary Leavitt and Commissioner Von Eschenbach yesterday, and be able to put in perspective their experience at a fresh processing plant in Dallas and a fruit receiving port in New Jersey as part of the industry’s widespread commitment to food safety and food security,” he said.

“I especially want to thank the Del Monte team of Ernie Casper, director of the Camden port facility; Ross McKenney, vice president of quality assurance; and Dennis Christou, vice president of North American marketing, for making yesterday’s port tour a success.”

Like the old Kremlin photos, where “Kremlinologists” in the west would try to figure out who was ascending and who was descending in power by where they stood to review May Day parades and similar events, perhaps the most notable thing for the produce industry is that the Secretary of Health and Human Services was made Chairman of the task force, not the Secretary of Agriculture.

That may be telling in terms of where food safety is going to wind up on all food items.

It really is important that companies open up their facilities and that the United Fresh folks are working to make it all happen. This is the best way to avoid nasty surprises by government people who don’t understand the realities of the situation.

Kudos to United Fresh, Taylor Farms and Del Monte Fresh for their efforts on this important matter.

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