Pundit Interviews

Pundit Letters





Perishable Pundit
P.O. Box 810425
Boca Raton FL 33481

Ph: 561-994-1118
Fax: 561-994-1610


email:
info@PerishablePundit.com

a

Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur



Decline Of Nobel Culture:
From Theodore Roosevelt To Al Gore…
To Tesco & Non-existent Drowning
Polar Bears

Al Gore accepted the Nobel Peace Prize thus becoming the second former Vice President to win the prize. The previous recipient was President Theodore Roosevelt. You don’t have to have any particular opinions on global warming to see the distance between these two awards as part of the politicization of the Nobel committee and the general decline in standards.

Theodore Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize — the first Nobel won by any American — for, well, making peace. Specifically he shepherded the negotiations to end the Russo-Japanese War. These negotiations started at the President’s home in Oyster Bay, Sagamore Hill — a favorite boyhood haunt of the Pundit by the way — and continued at and around a naval base in Portsmouth. They resulted in the Treaty of Portsmouth which ended the war between Russia and Japan.

In contrast, Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize for, well, being a propagandist. Certainly not for anything to do with peace.

CNN’s Miles O’Brien conducted an interview, and The Wall Street Journal excerpted from it, with John Cristy, who is the director of the Earth Systems Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and a participant in the U.N’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — which is the co-recipient, along with Al Gore, of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize:

O’BRIEN: I assume you’re not happy about sharing this award with Al Gore. [Are] you going to renounce it in some way?

CHRISTY: Well, as a scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, I always thought that — I may sound like the Grinch who stole Christmas here — that prizes were given for performance, and not for promotional activities.

And, when I look at the world, I see that the carbon dioxide rate is increasing, and energy demand, of course, is increasing. And that’s because, without energy, life is brutal and short. So, I don’t see very much effect in trying to scare people into not using energy, when it is the very basis of how we can live in our society.

O’BRIEN: So, what about the movie [”An Inconvenient Truth”]; do you take issue with it, then, Dr. Christy?

CHRISTY: Well, there’s any number of things.

I suppose, fundamentally, it’s the fact that someone is speaking about a science that I have been very heavily involved with and have labored so hard in, and been humiliated by, in the sense that the climate is so difficult to understand, Mother Nature is so complex, and so the uncertainties are great, and then to hear someone speak with such certainty and such confidence about what the climate is going to do is — well, I suppose I could be kind and say, it’s annoying to me.

O’BRIEN: But you just got through saying that the carbon dioxide levels are up. Temperatures are going up. There is a certain degree of certainty that goes along with that, right?

CHRISTY: Well, the carbon dioxide is going up. And remember that carbon dioxide is plant food in the fundamental sense. All of life depends on the fact carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere. So, we’re fortunate it’s not a toxic gas. But, on the other hand, what is the climate doing? And when we build — and I’m one of the few people in the world that actually builds these climate data sets — we don’t see the catastrophic changes that are being promoted all over the place.

For example, I suppose CNN did not announce two weeks ago when the Antarctic sea ice extent reached its all-time maximum, even though, in the Arctic in the North Pole, it reached its all-time minimum.

Al Gore’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which you can read here, is filled with hysteria and over-stated claims:

In the last few months, it has been harder and harder to misinterpret the signs that our world is spinning out of kilter. Major cities in North and South America, Asia and Australia are nearly out of water due to massive droughts and melting glaciers. Desperate farmers are losing their livelihoods. Peoples in the frozen Arctic and on low-lying Pacific islands are planning evacuations of places they have long called home. Unprecedented wildfires have forced a half million people from their homes in one country and caused a national emergency that almost brought down the government in another. Climate refugees have migrated into areas already inhabited by people with different cultures, religions, and traditions, increasing the potential for conflict. Stronger storms in the Pacific and Atlantic have threatened whole cities. Millions have been displaced by massive flooding in South Asia, Mexico, and 18 countries in Africa. As temperature extremes have increased, tens of thousands have lost their lives. We are recklessly burning and clearing our forests and driving more and more species into extinction. The very web of life on which we depend is being ripped and frayed.

As John Christy wrote some time ago, to interpret weather changes in our own lifetimes this way is bizarre:

Mother Nature simply operates at a level of complexity that is, at this point, beyond the mastery of mere mortals (such as scientists) and the tools available to us. As my high-school physics teacher admonished us in those we-shall-conquer-the-world-with-a-slide-rule days, “Begin all of your scientific pronouncements with ‘At our present level of ignorance, we think we know…’”

I haven’t seen that type of climate humility lately. Rather I see jump-to-conclusions advocates and, unfortunately, some scientists who see in every weather anomaly the specter of a global-warming apocalypse. Explaining each successive phenomenon as a result of human action gives them comfort and an easy answer.

Others of us scratch our heads and try to understand the real causes behind what we see. We discount the possibility that everything is caused by human actions, because everything we’ve seen the climate do has happened before. Sea levels rise and fall continually. The Arctic ice cap has shrunk before. One millennium there are hippos swimming in the Thames, and a geological blink later there is an ice bridge linking Asia and North America…..

Then there is the challenge of translating global trends to local climate. For instance, hasn’t global warming led to the five-year drought and fires in the U.S. Southwest?

Not necessarily.

There has been a drought, but it would be a stretch to link this drought to carbon dioxide. If you look at the 1,000-year climate record for the western U.S., you will see not five-year but 50-year-long droughts. The 12th and 13th centuries were particularly dry. The inconvenient truth is that the last century has been fairly benign in the American West. A return to the region’s long-term “normal” climate would present huge challenges for urban planners.

When people such as Al Gore spout things off, it is not trivial. As we pointed out here in our piece entitled Tesco, Polar Bears And Social Responsibility, first Al Gore promotes these ideas and next thing, Tesco is posting photos of polar bears:

Chief Marketing Officer for Tesco’s Fresh & Easy chain makes these pronouncements:

This picture means a lot to us. Every store we open will have it in the back area, every new fresh&easy employee will receive a card from our CEO, with this picture on the front.

Why?

My 9-year-old son got it first time: “Daddy, the polar bears are drowning because global warming is melting the ice. We have to do something.”

So the Tesco CEO is sending out post cards to remind us that the polar bears are drowning due to global warming, although a British judge — a Labor party member at that — found otherwise:

…a British High Court judge, Mr Justice Barton, ruled that Al Gore’s Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth was guilty of ‘alarmism and exaggeration’ in making several claims about the impacts of climate change, including the plight of polar bears.

Claims in the film that the animals were drowning because they were being forced to swim greater distances due to disappearing ice were unfounded, the judge said. There was only evidence that four polar bears had drowned and that was due to storms.

The truth is that moderating global warming, even if possible, is being treated as a virtue unto itself. However, our piece on Bjorn Lomborg, which you can read here, points out that we can impoverish ourselves and the world by modestly delaying global warming or we can use our resources to make the world wealthier and thus better able to mitigate the negative effects of climate change and take advantage of the positive impact of climate change.

Al Gore, though, seems to have no doubts at all.

Yet Theodore Roosevelt, who didn’t bother to go to Sweden to address the academy until after his presidency was over, didn’t see even peace itself as an unqualified virtue, as he spoke when he finally came to Sweden:

We must ever bear in mind that the great end in view is righteousness, justice as between man and man, nation and nation, the chance to lead our lives on a somewhat higher level, with a broader spirit of brotherly goodwill one for another. Peace is generally good in itself, but it is never the highest good unless it comes as the handmaid of righteousness; and it becomes a very evil thing if it serves merely as a mask for cowardice and sloth, or as an instrument to further the ends of despotism or anarchy. We despise and abhor the bully, the brawler, the oppressor, whether in private or public life, but we despise no less the coward and the voluptuary. No man is worth calling a man who will not fight rather than submit to infamy or see those that are dear to him suffer wrong. No nation deserves to exist if it permits itself to lose the stern and virile virtues; and this without regard to whether the loss is due to the growth of a heartless and all-absorbing commercialism, to prolonged indulgence in luxury and soft, effortless ease, or to the deification of a warped and twisted sentimentality.

Hmmm… “…deification of a warped and twisted sentimentality” — perhaps like a cult built around drowning polar bears that are not really drowning.




PMA Mexico Country Council Meets

This year — 2007 — will mark the year in which PMA’s long term strategy to expand internationally began to cohere. First we published PMA Broadens Reach In Chile, which focused on a seminar featuring guest speaker Thomas Reardon from Michigan state.

This program was organized by Gustavo Yentzen, who is PMA’s representative in Chile.
Then we published PMA Convenes First Country Council, which focused on the launch of the Australia/New Zealand Country Council. John Baker handles PMA’s affairs on the ground in Australia.

Now PMA has held the first meeting of the PMA Mexico Country Council:

Inaugural PMA Mexico Country Council Meeting Features Discussions of Produce Trends, Challenges and Future Changes

Mexican produce industry leaders representing the entire supply chain came together December 4 to participate in the first meeting of the Produce Marketing Association’s (PMA) Mexico Country Council, held, in Mexico City, Mexico. With 61 PMA-member companies in Mexico, this meeting focused on the ways PMA can provide assistance to the needs and issues crucial to the Mexican produce industry.

During the meeting, council members discussed trends in Mexico’s fruit and vegetable industry, challenges impacting their businesses in the next two years and the changes they foresee impacting the industry in the next five years. The need for food safety innovation and cold chain optimization were important issues to all council members. Following these discussions, the council met in smaller groups to discuss ways PMA-created programs and services could address these trends, challenges and changes.

Representing PMA in the meeting were: Vice President of Global Business Development Nancy Tucker; Member Relations Manager Paula Gonzalez; and Mexico Representative Alejandro Larreategui.

“I am very proud of the group’s commitment and participation in this groundbreaking first meeting. Despite the busy time of year, each member of this prominent group of leaders was present to share good ideas and discuss market insights,” remarked council Chairman Francisco Obregon, director of produce, Latin America business development division, C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minnesota. “These fresh perspectives will help PMA offer more valuable resources to meet our members’ needs.”

PMA’s country councils are designed to help the association learn more about the unique needs of members in each country, and to ensure products, services and events are relevant to current and potential members around the world. The Mexican group is the second PMA country council; the Australia-New Zealand Country Council held its first meeting in May.

The founding members of the PMA Mexico Country Council represent Mexican growers, exporters, importers, industry service providers, wholesalers and retailers. Serving under Obregon’s chairmanship, other council members include:

Custodio Aguilar, Frutas Finas del Noroeste, S.A. de C.V.

Mario Ayala, Grupo Maya, S.A. de C.V.

Andres Escalante, Wal-Mart Global Procurement, Mexico

Roberto Gandara, Agricola Duke, S.P.R. de R.L.

Jorge Garcés, Tiendas Garcés, S.A. de C.V.

Juan A. Laborin, Asociacion de Productores de Uva de Mesa

Gerardo Lara, Propex Fabrics de Mexico, S.A. de C.V.

Magda Leyson, Agricola San Isidro, S.A. de C.V.

Ignacio Moreno, Instituto Tecnologico de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey

Fidel Pedraza Obregon, Fidel Pedraza y Asociados

Mauricio Ricaud, Bionatur, Invernaderos Biologicos

Jaime Tamayo, Divemex

German Tapia, Celulosa y Corrugados de Sonora, S.A. de C.V.


PMA’s Mexico Country Council members gather for a photo with PMA staff members who attended the council’s first meeting last week in Mexico City, Mexico.

Back row (left to right): Alejandro Larreategui; Juan A. Laborin; Mauricio Ricaud; Mario Ayala; German Tapia; and Jaime Tamayo.

Middle row (left to right): Gerardo Lara; Jorge Garcés; Roberto Gandara; Chairman Francisco Obregon; and Ignacio Moreno.

Front row (left to right): Custodio Aguilar; Fidel Pedraza Obregon; Magda Leyson; Paula Gonzalez; and Nancy Tucker.

Pundit contributor Francisco Obregon, director of produce, Latin America business development division, C.H. Robinson Worldwide, is chairing the initiative, which gives it substantial pedigree. As we mentioned in a piece about his son getting a new position, Pancho, as his friends call him, is the grandson of a man who was the President of Mexico.

In addition, PMA has Alejandro Larreategui, who has a reputation as a marketing whiz, on the ground in Mexico.
And all these activities take place under the watchful eye of Nancy Tucker, PMA’s Vice President of Global Business Development.

By all accounts, the meeting went well, yet we suspect PMA has substantial challenges ahead in developing the Mexico Country Council. Whereas Australia and New Zealand felt right, with a dedicated group of industry leaders ready, willing, able — even hungry — to connect with PMA, the Mexico Country Council seems more a development project.

However, in light of the enormous volume of trade between the U.S. and Mexico, closer cooperation is, of course, well worth pursuing.

We can’t allow Australia and New Zealand to frame our expectations. There is something unique about the industry in these countries. Partially it is that we share a language and partially it is that Australia and New Zealand, as western outposts far from the west, have a natural propensity to hop on planes and outreach to distant countries for ideas and peers. Perhaps the small populations of Australia and New Zealand also mean that produce industry members recognize there are limits on their abilities to sustain large associations such as PMA on their own.

Most probably, though, there is no history animosity between Yankees and Aussies and Kiwis, so we can meet one another and learn from, appreciate and enjoy each other based on what we each bring to the table.

It seems as if we should be closer and work more cooperatively with the United Kingdom. We certainly have a lot to discuss and the same language to discuss it in. One can identify reasons why cooperation is not more extensive — the UK has strong industry institutions of its own, it can look to Europe for information and ideas, on and on. Yet, we can’t help but think that, in the end, we don’t bond the way we have with the Australians because in a certain way, on some level, we Americans are still the colonists to the British and the British are still the mother country to America, and that changes the kinds of relationships people feel fully comfortable with.

Mexico and the U.S. have a history of our own. In some ways the success of the PMA Mexico Country Council rests on the ability to get past all that.

Perhaps this may give us an extra impetus for success as we are working not only to build a more productive produce industry but to help build a more cooperative and successful North America. Important stuff.

Congratulations to PMA and the PMA Mexico Council members for a successful kick-off — may it be the first success of many.




WIC’s Addition Of Produce Applauded,
But Don’t Expect A Lift In Consumption

It is hard for us to remember when United’s Lorelei DiSogra, whom we profiled here, was not speaking passionately about getting produce into the Women’s, Infant and Children’s Program — or WIC. Now both United and PMA are enthused because it is almost upon us with the approval of an interim final rule.

First we heard from Lorelei herself:

Fruit and Vegetables Added to WIC Food Packages

In the first comprehensive revision to the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food package since 1980, USDA published today in the Federal Register an interim final rule, adding monthly vouchers enabling WIC moms to purchase a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. The projected value of the new WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers totals more than $500 million per year, and will help transform the eating habits of WIC families.

United Fresh Produce Association has worked for more than a decade to lobby Congress, the Clinton Administration and now the Bush Administration to add fruits and vegetables to WIC to improve the health of WIC moms and kids. This rule aligns WIC Food Packages with the Dietary Guidelines for America and the current infant feeding recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and provides WIC participants with a wider variety of food. “This is a landmark day for the health of America’s children, and also for the produce industry,” said United Fresh Vice President of Nutrition and Health Dr. Lorelei DiSogra. “This small step will have mammoth impact on the health of WIC families, while driving more than $500 million in incremental sales of fruits and vegetables. That is truly a win-win for WIC families and our industry,” she said.

The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly known as WIC, is administered by USDA. WIC food packages provide supplemental foods designed to meet their specific nutritional needs and improve pregnancy outcome and child nutrition. More than 8.4 million low-income women, infants and children participate in WIC each year. WIC moms will now receive a fruit/vegetable voucher for $8 each month; WIC Children will receive a voucher for $6 per month and fully breastfeeding mothers will receive a voucher for $10 a month.

State WIC agencies must implement the provisions of the rule no later than August 5, 2009, eighteen months after the effective date of the interim rule. However, it is expected that some states will implement these changes sooner. USDA, the National WIC Association and state WIC agencies will work with retailers to ensure smooth implementation.

The inclusion of fruits and vegetables in WIC has been a top priority for United Fresh since the Clinton Administration, when United Fresh members first called on Congress and the USDA to revise WIC food packages. Lobbying for WIC reform has been a key part of the association’s efforts since that time, leading to a long-term partnership with the National WIC Association and the public health community to provide critical data to USDA, show that vouchers work well at retail, and demonstrate that WIC participants would purchase a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables when given a fruit/vegetable voucher.

Thanks to all United Fresh members who sent comments to USDA on the proposed rule, spoke to their Congressional delegations and supported our research and Congressional Briefings. Your engagement and support enhanced our ability to play a leadership role in this effort. United Fresh will continue to partner with the National WIC Association to insure effective implementation of the new WIC food packages.

PMA was also in the Pundit inbox:

PMA Applauds USDA for Increasing Fruit and Vegetable Access to Nation’s Nutritionally
At-risk Moms and Young Children

Leaders of the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) today welcomed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) announcement that mothers and young children participating in the federal government’s nutrition safety-net program would soon be guaranteed greater access to fruits and vegetables for their better health.

Mothers and their children participating in the federal government’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) will soon begin receiving vouchers allowing fruit and vegetable purchases for the first time, according to an agency interim rulemaking published Dec. 6 in the Federal Register. Vouchers of $8 will be provided to each participating non-breastfeeding mother, and $6 vouchers to each child; breastfeeding moms will receive $10 vouchers. The vouchers can be used to purchase fruits and vegetables of all forms, including fresh, frozen, canned and dried; white potatoes are the only produce item that is specifically excluded. (Under the current program, only breastfeeding mothers are allowed to use vouchers to purchase vegetables, and are limited to carrots only.)

As a result of these changes, the percent of WIC vouchers devoted to purchasing fruits and vegetables will increase from 0 percent to 2.7 percent. The value of these vouchers for fruit and vegetable purchases will total $934.3 million from 2008-2012, according to the Federal Register.

“This is healthy news for our nation’s nutritionally at-risk mothers and their young children, who will now be able to enjoy more healthy, delicious fruits and vegetables without adding further to their financial worries,” said PMA Senior Vice President of Industry Products and Services, Lorna Christie. “We applaud USDA for using its policies and programs to level the playing field, and to put the goals of the dietary guidelines within closer reach of this economically disadvantaged population.”

Christie noted PMA’s disappointment that USDA excluded white potatoes.

“Given how hard USDA otherwise worked to ensure that program participants would have access to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in various forms, we’re disappointed that they would specifically exclude a popular staple like white potatoes, which is immersed in American as well as other cuisines,” said Christie.

The fruit and vegetable vouchers are one of many changes to the WIC program that are intended to bring the program closer in alignment with the latest federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, issued in 2005. This rulemaking is the first time that the 33-year-old WIC program’s age- and nutritional needs-based “food packages” have been significantly reviewed since 1980. The program serves approximately 8.3 million low-income pregnant and lactating women, their infants and young children up to age five, providing food vouchers and other related support.

PMA and other groups and companies including the Produce for Better Health Foundation had pressed for the need to increase fruit and vegetable access to both USDA during the rulemaking process, and to an Institute of Medicine (IOM) blue-ribbon science panel that had advised USDA on needed WIC program changes. The IOM panel had advised USDA to establish vouchers of $10 for women and $8 for children; USDA reduced the amount so that the changes to the program would be cost-neutral.

Other provisions in the rulemaking that are of interest to the fruit and vegetable industry include:

USDA opted not to mandate purchase of dark leafy green or orange vegetables, to ensure that participants have the widest access to fruits and vegetables possible, though the nutritional benefits of those particular foods will be conveyed in WIC nutrition education efforts.

The rule gives states, which execute the WIC program at the local level, the authority to authorize farmers’ markets to accept WIC vouchers.

Vouchers will no longer be provided to purchase juices, including fruit and vegetable juices, for infants under six months of age; instead, the agency expects that whole versions of these foods will be provided. Juice allotments for children 1-4 years of age were also reduced.

The rule can be viewed at http://a257.g.akamaitech.net/7/
257/2422/01jan20071800/edocket.access.gpo.gov/2007/
pdf/E7-23033.pdf
. It is effective Feb. 4, 2008, and must be implemented by states not later than Aug. 5, 2009. Comments on the interim rule are due by Feb. 1, 2010.

And the consumer press has picked up on the story as well:

USDA Revises Food Program for
Women and Children

WASHINGTON, Dec 6 (Reuters) — A popular program that provides food assistance to low-income women and their children received its first overhaul in more than 30 years Thursday with the addition of fruits, vegetables and whole grains to the list of grocery items covered by the U.S. government.

The Agriculture Department said the new list reflects the changing nutritional needs of participants in the Women, Infants and Children food program and will help combat obesity. Created in 1972, the WIC program supplements the diet of 8.5 million low-income pregnant women, new mothers and young children annually.

The revised list of foods that can be purchased with WIC vouchers is the result of a review that was first announced in August 2006. It does not change the value of benefits, about $39 a month, to qualified low-income pregnant women, and children up to the age of 5 who are at nutritional risk.

USDA heard from “WIC agencies, from stakeholders and, of course, the participants themselves to revise (WIC) so it does reflect the latest nutrition, science and dietary recommendations for Americans,” said Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner. “We believe this rule will do just that.”

The revised program provides women and children with less saturated fat and cholesterol and allows more fiber, fruits and vegetables.

Recipients will be allowed to substitute items — such as replacing whole wheat bread with soft corn tortillas, or canned, frozen and dried fruits and vegetables in place of their fresh counterparts — in order to reflect cultural differences and make it easier for people to participate.

The revised WIC program also provides incentives for women to continue breast-feeding by providing less formula to partially breast-fed infants, and giving fruit and vegetable vouchers of $10 to fully breast-feeding women, compared with $8 for all other women.

These changes have “the potential to transform not only the eating habits of WIC mothers, infants and young children, but the eating habits of all Americans,” said Douglas Greenaway, executive director with the National WIC Association.

USDA received more than 46,000 comments on the revisions. Most were supportive, USDA said, but criticism came from the dairy, juice and other industries that will be receiving less support.

Key reductions include the amount of eggs WIC recipients can buy with their vouchers, one dozen a month, down from 2 to 2-1/2 dozen. Juice for children ages 1 through 4 years, for example, would be reduced to 128 fluid ounces from 288, and milk would be cut to 16 quarts per month from 24 quarts.

”We have no issues at all with what they are trying to do, trying to include some fruits and vegetables. But we were hoping it wouldn’t be done at the expense of eggs,” said Howard Magwire, a spokesman with the United Egg Producers.

The National Milk Producers Federation said reducing milk and cheese support would deprive many WIC participants of key nutrients, such as calcium and potassium.

USDA, which oversees the state-run programs, said states have until Aug. 5, 2009, to implement the changes.

A Washington think tank, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said in late November that up to half a million people could be denied WIC benefits in the coming year because of rising food prices and enrollment that was larger than expected.

It is interesting to note that Reuters in this article points out something that is not mentioned in the fresh produce trade association’s releases:

Recipients will be allowed to substitute items — such as replacing whole wheat bread with soft corn tortillas, or canned, frozen and dried fruits and vegetables in place of their fresh counterparts — in order to reflect cultural differences and make it easier for people to participate.

Note the right to substitute canned, frozen and dried fruits and vegetables for fresh. You can be sure that neither United nor PMA asked for that.

We recently ran a couple of pieces that questioned whether the Produce for Better Health Foundation’s inclusion of frozen and canned didn’t create the need for a fresh-specific promotional program. The first piece was entitled, Will Fresh Industry Foot Bill If Frozen/Canned Uses More Matters Logo?, and the next was entitled, Facts Obscured About Frozen Produce On General Mills/Green Giant Web Site.

When we see this right to use canned and frozen making it into this rule, we are suddenly reminded that one source of opposition to getting approval for things such as the Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program to provide snacks in the school is the frozen and canned industry. A hunch we have had confirmed by players on the Hill.

The industry is going to have to carefully analyze the future of our relationship with canned and frozen product. Can we continue to break bread over at PBH while we battle on the Hill?

When it comes to getting produce into the WIC program, we are of two minds: First, it has been an initiative for a long time, and we congratulate all those who have worked so hard to make it a reality.

We, of course, endorse the initiative. There is no reason to exclude produce from WIC and doing so can send an incorrect message about the healthfulness of produce.

Yet we confess that we can’t see how it will make much difference. We published early on a piece entitled, WIC Juggling Act, which pointed out that because USDA was not planning to increase the dollar value given to each recipient, adding produce was going to be a challenge since every dollar for produce had to come from another commodity.

We also questioned whether it would actually increase produce purchases:

…money is a fungible commodity, and most families supplement the WIC allotments for food with their own cash. So the net result of a change in the WIC program is likely to be a re-shuffling of which items are purchased with WIC funds and which are purchased with cash.

This was followed by a piece based on a letter we received from a well-connected reader:

I had an opportunity to speak with Stephen Christianson who manages WIC, and I asked if there is any evidence that this actually increases the consumption of fruits and vegetables. He said that he didn’t know!

My point was: let’s say a family has $200 to spend on groceries per month. And of that $200, $35 comes from WIC. If based on their normal consumption, they spend $40 on fruits and vegetables total, who cares where the money comes from? Shifting where the money comes from doesn’t automatically increase the consumption.

All we have done is shift some of the spending on fruits and vegetables from their own cash to government money. It’s not increasing the size of the pie, it’s only changing how they pay for their slice.

I think you said it in one of your [PRODUCE BUSINESS] editorials several months ago. Our efforts have to be focused on education, not these minimally incremental changes to a government food program.

Our writer was, of course, speaking of the substitution effect — i.e., if you spend $80 a month on gasoline and your employer announces that he will be reducing your salary by $20 a month and adding in a gas coupon for $20, would this make you spend more on gasoline?

So now, consumers who used to buy eggs and juice with their WIC funds and bought produce for cash will now buy produce with WIC funds and extra eggs and juice for cash. There is little reason to expect much increase in fresh produce consumption — even more so now that the produce allotment is shared with canned and frozen.

It is a victory for right and a victory for the industry. Maybe one day, WIC funds will be increased and we will be well-positioned to get a share of that increase. But we wouldn’t count on much additional business coming from this anytime soon.




FDA Gets Blueprint For Future,
Incentive Change Might Lead
To Safer Food

One of the fun things about reading the Pundit is that if you view it regularly you start to see a web of subtle connections between disparate events. Just the other day in our piece, Pundit’s Mailbag — Consumer Has Shared Responsibility In Food Safety, we told the story of Michael Taylor and his pivotal role in defining what food safety means:

If consumer participation in food safety could be expected or mandated, then E. coli 0157:H7 in hamburger would not be a beef industry issue. It would always be the consumers or the restaurant’s fault for improperly cooking meat if anyone got sick.

Yet in the years following the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box outbreak, there was a clear shift away from this perspective. In mid-1994 a man named Michael Taylor was appointed as Chief of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Shortly thereafter, on September 29, 1994, Taylor said that the USDA would from that date forward regard E. coli O157:H7 in raw ground beef as an “adulterant,” because the epidemiological evidence showed that in the hands of consumers it was ”ordinarily injurious to health” — thus it was an adulterant that should never, ever be present in the product.

In mid-October, 1994, Taylor announced plans to launch a nationwide sampling of ground beef to assess how much E. coli O157:H7 was in the marketplace. Five thousand samples would be taken during the year from supermarkets and meat processing plants “to set an example and stimulate companies to put in preventive measures.”

A positive result would prompt product recalls of the entire affected lot, effectively removing it from any possibility of sale — even though no one had gotten sick and consumers and restaurants could make the hamburger 100% safe just by thoroughly cooking it.

So even where there is a kill step, the rule has become that it is unacceptable to sell product that is dangerous.

The same Michael Taylor is now a Research Professor at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, and he was called to testify before a Senate committee on the new FDA Food Safety Action Plan. The testimony is both important and enlightening:

TESTIMONY OF MICHAEL R. TAYLOR

Mr. Chairman, Senator Enzi, members of the committee, I appreciate this opportunity to testify on strategies to improve food safety and on the Food and Drug Administration’s recently issued Food Protection Plan.

Introduction

This hearing is timely and important. For over a decade, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and expert committees of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) have been documenting fundamental problems in the nation’s food safety system — a system that has evolved over many years without a coherent plan or strategy and that now includes some 20 components of FDA, USDA, EPA, and CDC, and 3,000 state and local agencies.

Among all these agencies, FDA has long been looked to as the natural focal point for food safety leadership in the United States and internationally. It oversees 80% of the U.S. food supply (including an even greater share of imported food) and is the steward of a long tradition of effective, science-based regulation to protect public health.

Unfortunately, FDA’s current ability to provide food safety leadership, or even meet its basic food safety responsibilities, is badly constrained by:

Obsolete statutes that date back to the 1930’s and focus more on reacting to problems than preventing them;

Inadequate resources that are dwindling in the face of an increasingly complex, global food supply; and an internally fragmented and ineffectual organizational structure that makes FDA incapable today of providing effective food safety leadership.

Certainly, FDA could be doing more with its present tools to address some of today’s pressing food safety problems. I believe, however, that FDA will continue to fall short of what the public needs and expects from this critical public health institution until Congress provides a modern statutory mandate, an adequate and stable resource base, and an institutional structure capable of national and international leadership on food safety.

And that is why it is so timely and important for this committee to be focusing on how to improve FDA’s food safety program. Getting food safety right at FDA is essential to the public’s health, to the confidence people want to have in the food they feed themselves and their families, and to the economic success of the food system. This committee’s leadership will be essential to achieving these outcomes.

In my testimony today, I will not linger over the litany of what’s wrong with the FDA program. I will instead focus on what I believe are the core policy elements of a successful strategy for improving food safety, and I will assess the new FDA Food Protection Plan in light of those elements.

In general, I find that the FDA plan contains many of the policy ideas that experts agree are important to ensuring food safety — and thus provides a platform on which to build. It falls critically short, however, on clearly and properly defining the complementary but distinct food safety roles of the food industry and the government. As a result, the FDA plan does not include actions and recommendations that I think are vital to FDA’s success.

I note also that the administration’s plan is silent on FDA’s resource and organizational problems, but I will focus in this testimony on the core policies that should underlie FDA’s food safety strategy and program.

CORE POLICY ELEMENTS OF A
SUCCESSFUL FOOD SAFETY STRATEGY

The following are the five core policy elements that I consider essential to a successful FDA food safety strategy.

1. Treat food safety as a farm-to-table, system-wide problem.

For most of the 20th century, food safety regulators focused largely on basic sanitation in processing plants, chemical contaminants in food, and the safety of chemical additives. It was possible then for FDA to focus on a relatively narrow set of establishments, commodities, and decision processes through which those concerns could be addressed. Over the last twenty years, however, the problem of foodborne illness caused by microbial pathogens has emerged as a central food safety concern and one that requires a broader, “farm-to-table” approach to ensuring food safety.

A farm-to-table approach is required due to the simple reality that dangerous bacteria and other pathogens can enter the food chain at almost any point, from production on the farm through processing, retail sale, and final preparation for consumption; they can grow; and they can be killed. Thus, whether someone gets sick depends not on any one contamination event but on a wide range of events and behaviors that occur across the entire farm-to-table food system and that, in combination, determine the likelihood dangerous levels of an organism will be present at the point of consumption. This expanded understanding of food safety makes everyone — from farmers to consumers, as well as government food safety agencies — actors in the food safety system. It creates the opportunity and need for integrated action to minimize food safety risks at points all across the farm-to-table system — wherever pathogens can enter the food and grow or be reduced. FDA’s food safety program must recognize and act on this reality, as recommended repeatedly by GAO and NAS.

2. Make prevention of food safety problems the central focus of the system.

Prevention is the core principle of public health and should be the central focus of the food safety system. Prevention of problems is certainly what consumers expect of the system, and it’s the core principle that drives modern approaches to food safety. Most notably, HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) is a system of preventive process control that was developed originally by the food industry as a method for anticipating and preventing food safety hazards in particular food production and processing operations.

FDA has adopted HACCP as a regulatory requirement for seafood and juice, but prevention is not an explicit part of its statutory mandate. In fact, FDA’s food safety legal authorities are designed primarily for reacting to and correcting problems after they occur, not for preventing them. In an on-going outbreak of foodborne illness, swift reaction and containment measures are important and can reduce the number of illnesses associated with that outbreak, but, to protect public health and meet public expectations for food safety, preventive measures such as HAACP need to be built in to the system so that the risk of food safety problems occurring in the first place is minimized to the greatest extent reasonably possible.

FDA currently pursues prevention of this kind only on a selective and ad hoc basis. A comprehensive, systematic approach to prevention should be a core principle and central focus of the food safety system.

3. Recognize that the primary duty for prevention falls on the food industry.

This may be the most crucial point to emphasize in getting roles and relationships between government and industry right. The unavoidable reality is that government does not make food, and government cannot make it safe. That’s the food industry’s job, and making food safe — doing everything reasonably possible to prevent food safety problems — is the most fundamental duty food producers and processors owe to America’s consumers.

Many of our nation’s leading food processors and retailers take this duty very seriously, and they make extensive efforts to fulfill it. They know food safety doesn’t just happen; it’s the result of a plan. So they impose safety specifications on their suppliers to be sure their raw materials and ingredients are safe; they implement HACCP and other preventive control measures within their processing plants; and they test their finished products to verify that their control systems are working. In fact, over the years, much of the food safety innovation in the United States has come from companies that take food safety seriously and have plans for achieving it.

The problem is that many of the nation’s 44,000 food manufacturers and processors, 114,000 food retailers, and 935,000 restaurants do not have effective food safety plans. And, at the farm level, systematic planning for prevention of food safety problems is in its relative infancy. This must change.

Any business involved in producing, processing, and marketing food must have a plan for making it safe, based on modern preventive controls. This does not mean a one-size-fits-all approach. It does not mean HACCP per se for every commercial participant in the food system. But it does mean that anyone producing food for today’s marketplace should know how they are going to make it safe and should do that consistently, every day.

4. Focus FDA on setting and enforcing standards that make the food industry accountable for prevention.

While the food industry is inherently responsible for making food safe by acting preventively, FDA’s job as a public health regulatory agency is to set and enforce standards that make the industry publicly accountable for prevention, in accordance with a defined standard of care. Setting standards for prevention means defining the responsibility of food producers, processors and retailers to have and implement food safety plans based on modern preventive controls. It also means establishing performance standards that define the level of protection, or food safety performance, that is to be achieved through preventive controls, such as the levels of chemical residues or microbial contaminants that are deemed acceptable.

Standards protect food safety only if companies comply with them, and it is FDA’s job to ensure compliance through inspection and enforcement. For many leading companies, compliance is not an issue: if the government sets a food safety standard, they will organize their systems to comply. In fact, many will go beyond what the government requires in response to the demands of their customers expressed in the marketplace. The food industry is, however, highly diverse, with some companies lacking the market incentive or an internal culture that ensures they meet high food safety standards. That’s why government standards and government enforcement are needed, and it’s why they are in the interest of both consumers and those in the industry who take their food safety job seriously and do it well.

Government regulation of food safety is essential, but it has to be smart regulation. We have learned that old fashioned “command and control” regulation — in which the government specifies not only the outcome to be achieved but how industry must achieve it — can impose unnecessary costs and stifle innovation. Instead, modern regulation is clear in setting performance standards for companies and flexible in how companies can achieve the standard. Thus, as a regulatory tool, HACCP sets a standard of care for implementing preventive process control but is inherently flexible in allowing companies to tailor their preventive controls to the particular hazards and circumstances in their operations. Performance standards for microbial contamination say what level and incidence are acceptable, but they do not dictate the interventions needed to achieve them.

In a food safety system based on holding the industry accountable for prevention, regulators have a duty not only to avoid stifling innovation but to affirmatively encourage it. This means among other things ensuring that regulatory review of new food safety technologies is done promptly and with an appreciation of the food safety benefits of technological innovation.

5. Strengthen FDA’s mandate and tools for providing national leadership on food safety and managing a science- and risk-based regulatory program.

While FDA’s core role on food safety is to set and enforce standards, it will be effective in this role only if it operates from a position of strength as the nation’s leading science-based, public health regulatory agency. To this end, FDA should have a clear mandate to drive research aimed at understanding food safety problems and solutions and setting science-based standards. It should work closely with CDC, other federal food safety agencies, and state and local agencies to build an integrated, national system of food safety protection. And it should provide scientific and policy leadership to develop workable approaches to risk-based priority setting and resource allocation across the food safety system.

ASSESSMENT OF THE FDA FOOD
PROTECTION PLAN

The five core policy elements outlined above reflect current thinking about the attributes of a modern, effective food safety system, as that thinking has evolved through the work of NAS, GAO and other experts. The language of the FDA Food Protection Plan is largely consistent with these ideas. It speaks of addressing risks of food “from production to consumption;” it makes prevention and corporate responsibility for prevention central themes of the plan; and it calls for risk-based approaches to inspection and better use of information to improve food safety. For this reason, the plan is a useful basis for discussion.

The shortcomings of the plan lie in the specific actions it proposes — and fails to propose — to implement these broad ideas. While many of the proposed actions are worth pursuing, they do not add up to an effective FDA strategy to improve food safety. In general, they fall short of the action that is needed to establish the food industry’s farm-to-table accountability for prevention. To illustrate this key point, I will review the FDA plan in light of the five core policy elements discussed above.

1. Treat food safety as a farm-to-table, system-wide problem.

While stressing the importance of a farm-to-table approach to food safety, the FDA plan proposes no specific actions to improve food safety on the farm or at retail, beyond what it is currently doing.

At the farm level, the plan calls for FDA to meet with food industry representatives to strengthen “voluntary” prevention efforts and for FDA to develop guidelines for industry development of voluntary “food protection plans” for produce and other foods, but FDA has been meeting with the industry about produce safety for the last decade, and in 1998 issued non-binding “good agricultural practice” guidelines to address the microbial safety of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Early this year, an industry trade group, the United Fresh Produce Association, concluded that the voluntary approach was insufficient and called for FDA to establish mandatory, enforceable, on-farm standards for safe produce production, but the FDA plan is silent on this idea. And, while the plan calls generally for strengthening FDA’s ability to assess and prioritize risks and identify preventive strategies, it contains no specific proposals for driving the research and analysis needed to establish enforceable food safety performance standards on the farm.

On retail food safety, the plan makes several references to the need for dialogue with the states and localities, which play the frontline role on food safety in the nation’s grocery stores and restaurants. Such dialogue is important, but it has been ongoing for many years and has resulted in important collaboration through FDA’s development and the adoption by many states of the Food Code, which is a model ordinance for regulating food safety at retail. In addition, FDA and the states collaborate on an innovative program to foster improvement in state and local food safety regulatory programs, based on uniform national standards. The FDA Food Protection Plan does not include ideas for improving these core FDA retail food safety programs or recommend any other specific actions to improve retail food safety.

While the FDA plan lacks concrete proposals for new actions to address food safety risks on U.S. farms or at retail, it does call for a number of actions to improve FDA oversight of food imports, including more affirmative efforts to work with foreign governments on food safety, develop knowledge needed to target high-risk imports, and improve FDA’s ability to detect problems at the port of entry. These ideas are positive, but, as discussed below, the report does not address the accountability of importers for ensuring that the food they import was produced in accordance with U.S. standards.

2. Make prevention of food safety problems the central focus of the system.

The FDA plan gives great prominence to the concept of prevention, which would be an important and positive shift in emphasis in FDA’s food safety program, but the plan’s approach is to work collaboratively with the industry to foster voluntary adoption of preventive control plans. Such voluntary efforts can contribute to progress in the near term to the extent those not currently following recognized “best practices” are willing to emulate leading companies that are already implementing state-of-the-art preventive control plans. Such voluntary efforts will not, however, solve the food safety problems posed by companies that lack market incentives or are otherwise unwilling or unable to bring their food safety practices up to modern standards. Furthermore, voluntary approaches do not provide clear public accountability for prevention.

Even more fundamentally, the FDA plan does not address the agency’s lack of a statutory mandate to make prevention the central focus of its program. While prevention is clearly the necessary strategy for the future, the basic food safety provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act on which FDA relies to regulate microbial pathogens were enacted in 1938 and are silent on prevention. They consist instead of adulteration and enforcement provisions designed for reaction to problems and correction of them after the fact. To make prevention the central focus of its program, FDA should be calling for a new prevention mandate from Congress and the legal tools to back it up.

3. Recognize that the primary duty for prevention falls on the food industry.

Again, the FDA plan calls prominently for promotion of “increased corporate responsibility to prevent foodborne illness,” which is a conceptual step forward, but the proposed implementation of this central concept falls far short.

In fact, rather than recognizing that all those involved in the food business have a prevention duty for which they should be publicly accountable, the FDA plan actually places the burden on FDA to determine case-by-case when preventive controls should be required. Moreover, it calls on Congress to limit FDA’s power to require preventive controls to cases in which it can establish through rulemaking that a particular food has been associated with “repeated, serious adverse health consequences or death.”

Placing the burden on FDA in this fashion is the opposite of a true prevention strategy. It treats preventive process control as a tool for reacting to problems after they occur rather than a tool for systematically and comprehensively building prevention into the system. And the stringent standard for requiring preventive controls that the FDA plan recommends is a step backward from the legal authority that FDA has under current law and has used already to require HACCP for seafood and juice. It is far from clear whether the Office of Management and Budget would have cleared, or the courts would have sustained, FDA’s seafood and juice HACCP rules had they been subject to the standard recommended in the FDA plan.

The plan’s lack of follow-through on the principle of industry responsibility for prevention is evident also in its import proposals. These proposals focus on what FDA will do to work with foreign governments and to better detect problems at ports of entry, but they do not call for any new accountability on the part of importers to ensure that problems have been prevented up the supply chain to the point of production in the exporting country. FDA will never have enough resources to police and ensure the safety of imports without harnessing the expertise and efforts of the private sector and making a U.S.-based entity legally accountable for ensuring prevention is “built in” for imports, just as it should be for domestically produced food.

4. Focus FDA on setting and enforcing standards that make the food industry accountable for prevention.

Other than the provisions for requiring preventive controls on a case-by-case, reactive basis, the FDA plan does not address the need for setting and enforcing standards that make the food industry accountable for prevention. As noted earlier, the plan focuses on encouraging voluntary adoption of preventive controls.

The closest the plan comes to standards and enforcement is in its second core element of “intervention,” where the plan calls for “targeted, risk-based interventions to…ensure that the preventive measures called for are implemented correctly.” The three “key intervention steps” do not, however, directly address prevention at all, nor do they involve any measure that would create accountability for prevention. The three proposed “interventions” are instead tools for detecting problems after the fact, including risk-based inspection, sampling, and surveillance and improved detection of food system “signals” that indicate contamination. These are all worthy approaches to better targeting the use of scarce resources, but they are more about detection and correction of problems than prevention.

The best way to ensure that necessary preventive measures are implemented is to hold companies directly accountable for prevention in accordance with a defined standard of care.

5. Strengthen FDA’s mandate and tools for providing national leadership on food safety and managing a science- and risk-based regulatory program.

The FDA plan clearly envisions a food safety leadership role for FDA in relation to the food industry and state and local government, which is positive. The call for closer collaboration with state and local food safety agencies is especially important to building an effective, national food safety program and making good use of all available public resources. On the industry side, however, the proposed FDA leadership role in encouraging voluntary adoption of preventive controls may actually blur rather than strengthen responsibility and accountability for prevention.

The plan’s call for FDA leadership on food safety research and on developing the tools for a science- and risk-based approach to setting priorities and allocating resources is an important strength. The plan also recognizes the need for FDA to take the lead in developing the tools and capacity for knowledge generation and information management to improve food safety, such as enhancement of FDA’s Emergency Operations Network Incident Management System, more effective traceback systems, and improved sharing of information across the system. Better collection and use of information is obviously essential to our efforts to improve food safety.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR IMPROVING
ON THE FDA FOOD PROTECTION PLAN

FDA’s plan has its clear strengths and weaknesses. On policy, the plan’s major strength is that it embraces the concept of industry responsibility for prevention and calls for strengthening FDA’s capacities in important ways. The plan’s major policy weakness is that it fails to call for the statutory modernization and policy change that is needed to implement the prevention concept in a really substantial way and thus leaves FDA still relying too heavily on reaction. The plan does not address at all FDA’s problems of dwindling resources and an ineffectual organizational structure for food safety.

With these points in mind, I offer the following major recommendations to augment FDA’s Food Protection Plan and equip FDA for success on food safety.

  • Modernize FDA’s Statutory Mandate
  • Congress should modernize FDA’s food safety mandate to, among other things:

    Explicitly make prevention of foodborne illness FDA’s primary food safety mission;

    Establish by law a duty for all those in the food business to implement preventive controls appropriate to their particular operation, subject to FDA’s implementing regulations and guidance;

    Direct FDA to establish and enforce performance standards that make companies accountable for implementing effective prevention measures;

    Make importers legally accountable for assuring that foreign producers and processors shipping products to the United States are meeting U.S. standards;

    Provide leadership in building an integrated, national food safety system that is science- and risk-based and makes efficient use of available resources to improve food safety.
  • Provide FDA an Adequate and Stable Resource Base

    FDA’s resources for food safety have been eroding for years as the agency’s food safety challenge gets larger. The total operating budget for FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition — the resources available to take action after the staff and rent are paid — is down to around $25 million, which is a paltry sum for an organization charged with driving food safety progress across 80% of the American food supply, while also regulating dietary supplements and food labeling, ensuring the safety of infant formula and food additives, and attempting to provide food safety leadership internationally. An agency with all these responsibilities that can’t conduct or commission research, adequately equip its staff, or travel simply can’t do its job.

Despite this well-documented resource reality, and despite the fact that the FDA plan includes 38 actions to strengthen FDA’s food safety program, the plan is silent on resources.

Presumably, the President’s 2009 budget proposal will include the resources needed to implement the plan.

Congress, however, has a responsibility to act. In addition to meeting FDA’s immediate needs through the 2008 and 2009 budget processes, Congress should undertake a serious study of how to establish an adequate and stable funding base for FDA’s food safety program for the long-term. Just as it is fair to hold the food industry accountable for doing its food safety job, it is fair to hold FDA accountable for the leadership and effective action we expect from that agency, but only if it has an adequate and predictable resource base.

Congress should explore a range of resource options, including:

Requiring FDA to prepare for Congress a five-year financial plan and an annual “professional judgment” budget sufficient to implement a modernized statutory mandate.

Establishing by law a statutory inspection mandate, with consequences built in for failure to meet it, to serve as an anchor for appropriated resources.

Authorizing FDA to collect establishment registration fees and import fees to provide a steady base of resources for the food safety program.

Unify and Elevate the Organizational Elements
of the FDA Food Safety Program

The third key ingredient for the success of any agency — after an appropriate statutory mandate and adequate resources — is an organizational framework suitable for its purpose. For food safety, FDA needs a framework that enables it to provide national leadership on food safety and run a coherent, well-planned program that makes the best use of available resources to improve food safety. For several reasons, FDA lacks such a framework.

First, within FDA, the food program has historically taken a back seat to the drug and medical device programs in the competition for management attention and resources. This is due in part to the intense interest that drug and device companies, health professionals, and patients all have in FDA’s “gatekeeper” role for therapeutic products and is reflected in the fact that most FDA commissioners come from a biomedical or health care background. This strong tilt toward drugs and devices was exacerbated by the drug and device user fee laws, which have further focused FDA management attention, accountability, and resources on the therapeutic side of the agency. History has taught that the job of providing effective national leadership simultaneously on both therapeutic products and food safety is too big a job for any one person.

Second, FDA’s organizational structure for food safety is fragmented and lacks a clear focal point for leadership. CFSAN ostensibly has the lead on food safety at FDA, but CFSAN actually shares food safety jurisdiction with the Center for Veterinary Medicine, which regulates pet food and animal drug and feed additive residues in human food, and with the Office of Regulatory Affairs, which manages the majority of FDA’s food safety resources through its field force of inspectors, compliance officers and laboratory personnel. The recent establishment in the Office of the Commissioner of an Assistant Commissioner for Food Protection, who serves as a spokesperson and coordinator but lacks budget or line authority for programs, further clouds responsibility and accountability for food safety within FDA.

Finally, food safety leadership at FDA rests at least two bureaucratic layers removed from the Secretary of Health and Human Services. As decision-making in the executive branch continues to be centralized at higher and higher levels, with OMB having enormous influence on regulatory policy, the full time leader of the nation’s premier food safety program needs to have the greater clout in the system that comes from being presidentially appointed and reporting directly to the Secretary.

The FDA Food Protection Plan did not address these structural obstacles to the success of the food safety program. Congress should address them by unifying the food-related components of FDA into a single organization and elevating that organization within HHS under the leadership of a presidentially appointed official reporting directly to the Secretary.

Conclusion

Thank you again, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to testify on these important issues. I look forward to answering your questions and the questions of your colleagues on the committee.

]

Our suggestion is to read this testimony well. It represents about as close as you can get to a consensus opinion by leading experts in this field as to what needs to be done to reform FDA and, as such, the US food safety system. We plucked 10 tidbits worthy of special attention:

FDA will continue to fall short of what the public needs and expects from this critical public health institution until Congress provides a modern statutory mandate, an adequate and stable resource base, and an institutional structure capable of national and international leadership on food safety.

This basically defines the problem:

1) The laws governing food safety date back to the 1930s and are inadequate to our scientific understanding and modern trade patterns. Most particularly, the perspective from which the law was written was one of dealing with an outbreak of foodborne illness. What we need today is a statutory focus on prevention.

2) Food safety programs require steady and substantial funding — they cannot depend on the whims of executive proposals and legislative allocations. Science and regulation require an infrastructure, and once people and competency are lost, they do not quickly reassemble just because a budget is increased.

3) If you are going to promulgate standards, you need a reputation as world class so people will listen to you. FDA is teetering on the brink of losing this respect.

FDA’s food safety legal authorities are designed primarily for reacting to and correcting problems after they occur, not for preventing them.

This is the big shift that has to happen. Since you can’t inspect enough product or test enough product to make sure safety is in the finished product, the focus has to be on systems that will enhance safety.

…government does not make food, and government cannot make it safe. That’s the food industry’s job…

For those thinking government regulation will make things easy, this is a strong warning. The government may provide minimum standards, fund research, require certain programs… but each company has both legal and moral responsibility for making its own food safe.

FDA’s job as a public health regulatory agency is to set and enforce standards that make the industry publicly accountable for prevention, in accordance with a defined standard of care…

Many in the industry will like this, particularly the notion that FDA should be responsible for articulating a “defined standard of care”. Perhaps the single biggest complaint we have heard from growers is that they are not food safety experts and that they need someone to define standards.

The great frustration with government has been an unwillingness to say, in straightforward, descriptive language, what the grower ought to do. The growers yearn for an FDA regulation that reads like this: farms growing ready-to-eat crops should be surrounded by a fence… the fence is to have an aperture of no more than 2¼ inches and the fence to extend six feet above the ground and two feet below the ground.

This type of proscriptive standard seems to be what Michael Taylor is implying FDA should produce so that everyone will know what they ought to do.

Yet there is something of a contradiction between FDA detailing “defined standards of care” and the notion that it is “the food industry’s job” to make food safe. One suspects it will wind up not going well for the industry. FDA will enunciate standards from which companies cannot deviate, yet if anything goes wrong, conformance with FDA standards will not be exculpatory when it comes to liability.

…regulators have a duty not only to avoid stifling innovation but to affirmatively encourage it.

Michael Taylor recognizes that one of the great dangers of the FDA defining “standards of care” is that current technologies will tend to be frozen in place. Sometimes it is just bureaucratic slowness that prevents them from being updated, sometimes it is politics — as vested interests fight to maintain the status quo. This is why building codes all over America may restrict plastic pipes or prefabricated construction.

Yet although Michael Taylor recognizes the problem, he presents no actual solution other than advising the “duty” of FDA officials. This is an area that will require more attention.

…at the farm level, systematic planning for prevention of food safety problems is in its relative infancy. This must change.

This is a reminder to the produce industry that we have just barely begun to experiment with governmental regulation. All we’ve gotten so far are a few GAP documents, some commodity-specific guidance. Michael Taylor is telling us “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

…the report does not address the accountability of importers for ensuring that the food they import was produced in accordance with U.S. standards.

Here is a prediction. All the big retailers will wind up dropping their global procurement operations. Why? Simple, if the FDA switches from inspecting product after the fact to organizing and monitoring prevention systems, the inevitable result is that the importer of record will have to be held responsible for certifying that food produced outside the US is produced in compliance with U.S. standards.

When this comes to pass, companies such as Wal-Mart will lose their appetite for being the importer of record.

…voluntary efforts will not, however, solve the food safety problems posed by companies that lack market incentives or are otherwise unwilling or unable to bring their food safety practices up to modern standards. Furthermore, voluntary approaches do not provide clear public accountability for prevention.

Translation: years of voluntary cooperation with the industry has not brought sufficient results, so that era has to close. Only mandatory rules provide a solution to upgrade standards for those without an economic incentive to do so.

Early this year, an industry trade group, the United Fresh Produce Association, concluded that the voluntary approach was insufficient and called for FDA to establish mandatory, enforceable, on-farm standards for safe produce production, but the FDA plan is silent on this idea

We discussed United’s initial endorsement of regulation here and PMA’s decision to join in the call here. The silence from FDA has been deafening. The FDA, in fact, seems unwilling or unable to take on its role as food safety guardian in the United States. Something has to be done to give these guys a kick in the pants.

Authorizing FDA to collect establishment registration fees and import fees to provide a steady base of resources for the food safety program.

It is clear that a user fee or other self-financing mechanism is going to be proposed. The goal is to assure a dedicated stream of resources much as the gas tax does for highway repair.

It is strong testimony and lays out a decent blueprint to follow. However, before we would worry about the government taking on whole new areas of authority in issues such as prevention, we would like to see more competency in areas that the government is already involved in.

For example, one of the base problems is that a commercial food buyer cannot look at a certification and be certain it is legit. As Devon Zagory, who now heads up the Center for Produce Safety, once wrote us:

Accreditation is well and good. But in many parts of the developing world accreditation and certification are for sale. I have been in food facilities in Eastern Europe that proudly display their ISO Certification documents in the entryway. But when touring the facilities, it became very clear that they could not possibly have completed the stringent ISO requirements of continuous improvement, attention to detail and documentation.

In short, they were filthy and disorganized. They probably purchased their certification. Unfortunately this is all too common in much of the world….

Who among us is 100% certain that it is only in the developing world that accreditation can be purchased?

We would have liked to see a little more emphasis on government using its existing powers to make sure that certifications are legitimate. Why do we never hear of the government setting up stings to catch corrupt certifiers in the act?

The problem with relying on food vendors to achieve food safety is that though these companies may have hypothetical long term benefits to achieve by building a reputation for food safety, they are also the organizations that can most directly and immediately make money by skimping on food safety.

So if our mechanism for achieving food safety is going to be the “food industry” more than focusing on regulation, we would be wise to focus on two things:

First, making it easier to establish which food is safe. This is where certification comes in. Very few companies have the competency and resources needed to evaluate suppliers, domestic or foreign. Every buyer has the competency and resources to require its vendors to have British Retail Consortium (BRC) certification or GlobalGAP certification.

Second, we need to address the incentive structures within the industry. One of the problems with regulation is that it is doesn’t create an industry culture in which improvements in food safety are rewarded. We recently pointed this out in a piece in Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, which we called The Consumer Covenant:

… What we want, as an industry, is for that small carrot processor to know A) If it doesn’t match the food-safety standards of the industry leader, it has zero chance of getting the business, and B) If it can outperform the industry leader on food safety, it has an excellent chance of stealing the business away. This will put a tiger on the tail of the industry leader to make sure it is always top class on food safety. It is this virtuous cycle we want to drive.

Instead, minimum fixed standards led to the attitude expressed by that same small carrot processor when asked by PRODUCE BUSINESS’ sister publication, PerishablePundit.com, if it had any third party certifications. An executive at the processor pointed out, "Our customers do not require us to have certificates." In other words, why spend time and money if it won’t help you get the business? In fact, where would the money come from to do this if buyers are indifferent to the efforts?

As we pointed out in another PRODUCE BUSINESS piece, The Economics of Mandatory Regulation, food safety problems are best looked at not in terms of how government can make food safe — for it cannot do so as Michael Taylor acknowledges in his testimony. We need, instead, to look at how society can create an incentive structure that will result in safe food.

We suspect that much could be accomplished by reassessing the distribution of legal liability. Remember, Jo McDonald of the BRC said this in our piece, Would British Retail Consortium Standards Have Prevented The Spinach Crisis?:

In the UK, there is due diligence requirements with the retail brand. There are requirements for retailers to test product as well. The retailer would have specific obligations to demonstrate due diligence and to make sure the supplier is competent.

I believe in the U.S. the legal system is different and ultimately a lot of the responsibility does fall on the supplier.

If you are a prosecutor, the first form of contact is to the retailer selling product that is unsafe, and how can that retailer demonstrate it is safe.

A lot of food safety issues don’t get dealt with because the way the system is set up now, a retailer’s prime concerns are two: 1) Getting an indemnification from the vendor and 2) Making sure the vendor has sufficient net worth or insurance to cover all claims.

A simple change in the law — such as imposing due diligence requirements on retailers — would lead to much greater rigor in actually obtaining food safety — as opposed to obtaining indemnifications.




Pundit’s Mailbag — A Closer Look At
Chefs Collaborative’s Mission Statement

Our piece, Chefs Collaborative Opposes Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, aroused passionate opposition from smaller growers, and we published Pundit’s Mailbag — Small Farmers Have More At Stake With Food Safety, which included a letter from Ken Kimes of New Natives in Freedom, California.

We also received another vituperative letter on the subject. This one from Dale Coke, who runs a 200-plus acre organic farm in San Benito County:

Some may find difficulty understanding a priori how the Pundit could arrive at a pronouncement like the Chefs Collaborative ‘has already decided…that locally grown foods are always better’ from the mission statement quoted.

Perhaps the Pundit was distracted from understanding the mission statement by the constantly flashing advertisements lining the sides of the Pundit’s web pages?

Of course, local and small certainly aren’t words used to define the advertisers flashing their messages on the Pundit’s sides. Those advertisers aren’t paying for slots next to a story that doesn’t question why we should even allow small local growers who can’t pay ‘the ante to get into the supply game’ to grow produce.

It is not really surprising — the Pundit defines itself this way: “We failed… not for want of the relevant materials but because of a plethora of irrelevant ones.”

To be fair, there were one or two points the Pundit brought up that were relevant. Too bad they’re lost in a quagmire of the Pundit’s a priori chimeras and the unabashed bias towards the processing advertisers lining the sides.

— Dale Coke
Coke Farm

Dale, you are killing us here. When Dale wanted to dissent from a position Dole took, we gave him a forum in our piece, Pundit’s Mailbag — GAPs Are Living Documents, and now, when he wishes to attack us, we give him a forum again.

Our assessment of the Chefs Collaborative is based on a simple fact. In its mission statement, the Chefs Collaborative could have said that its goal is to work with Chefs to make sure restaurant patrons are served dishes prepared with the highest quality ingredients.

That would be an open-ended statement that says the Chefs Collaborative is prepared to evaluate each product and, after study, decide which product is the best quality. After study, the Collaborative might come to the conclusion that product from a national shipper is better than locally grown, or that locally grown is better than a nationally processed product.

However, the actual mission statement says this: Chefs Collaborative works with chefs and the greater food community to celebrate local foods…

That is precisely what a priori means — the Chefs Collaborative is founded on the premise of celebrating local.

We would hold that it is wiser to evaluate the facts in each situation and be geographically agnostic in terms of preference for where food is grown. To say that local automatically deserves celebration is simply not credible.

Still, though we could discuss this matter with Dale in a civilized manner, we take exception to his assertion that the Pundit’s opinions are somehow shaped by our financial interests.

First, Dale is irresponsible to make the charge simply because he has no idea if it is true or not. After all, sometimes people’s opinions just happen to correspond with their own interests.

Second, having written as much as we have over as long as we have, our record is pretty clear — we are an equal-opportunity analyst. We try to be constructive but great publications such as the Pundit and PRODUCE BUSINESS have many advertisers but ONLY ONE REPUTATION, and we have no choice but to defend our hard-earned reputation

Third, there is an old piece of advice given to lawyers: “If the law is on your side, pound on the law. If the facts are on your side, pound on the facts. If neither the law nor the facts are on your side, pound on the table.”

We read this letter from our correspondent and see an old debate trick, the ad hominem attack. If our writer actually had something substantive to say, we suppose he would say it. Instead he attacks our character.

Fourth, this saddens us as we think it impoverishes debate within the industry. We’ve been around long enough that we doubt many readers will think we allow our opinions to sway in the wind. The problem is that our industry depends on many people speaking out and sharing their knowledge and understanding to help advance the trade.

When people, including the Pundit, speak out they are entering the arena and are subjecting the quality of their thinking and the extent of their knowledge to the withering scrutiny of thousands of industry participants and outside experts — that in itself requires some courage.

At very least, however, contributors to industry debate are entitled to a presumption of sincerity. They are entitled to think that their ideas will be scrutinized, not that unsubstantiated attacks will be made on their character.

It is no small thing to accuse a man of promoting opinions he doesn’t believe in order that he might line his pockets with money, and if we speak that way to one another the most likely outcome is that information helpful to the industry just won’t be shared.

Perhaps we have made punditry look easier than it is — it is no trick to express opinions, but to analyze things honestly and do it in such a way that we can all go out for a drink or a meal the next time we meet, and thus keep working to build the industry, that is no small trick.

We appreciate Dale’s reaching out to us and hope we are good enough to have clearly explained why the attacks on the Pundit’s personal integrity are unjustified, inappropriate to civil discourse and not helpful to the industry.

Yet we extend a hand and hope that on our next visit to San Benito County, Dale will give us a tour of that organic farm he has and give us a chance to get to know one another a little better. In the end, our piece was not opposed to Coke Farms or any other small farm; it was an expression of our hope that every farm will produce safe and wholesome food, a goal we are certain we share with Dale Coke.

Many thanks to Dale for his letter which enabled us to discuss such important issues.

Mail to a Friend

© 2017 Perishable Pundit | Subscribe | Print | Search | Archives | Feedback | Info | Sponsorship | About Jim | Request Speaking Engagement | Contact Us