A new Congress—the 110th under our nation’s constitution—is in session. Due to the electoral upheavals of last November, majority control in both the House and Senate has flipped in 2007. While policies of the current Administration on any number of fronts are thus certain to be subject to greater challenges and scrutiny, of special interest to our tree fruit industry will be the intense debate certain to be waged over the federal government’s past actions—and proper future role—related to the safety of produce.
Last fall’s E. coli episode involving fresh spinach from California, coupled with other highly publicized and widespread events of a similar nature, have served to bring to a boil a complex public health policy debate that has been simmering for years.
It is axiomatic that our fruit sold to children should not do them harm. We also know that absolute and unwavering consumer confidence in the system underpinning the safety of our apples, pears, and cherries is essential. In both product and process, we must do all that is within reason to achieve safety while fostering such bedrock confidence.
Should the federal government be given greater power and resources in the area of food safety, especially as related to fruits and vegetables? The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration are the two main federal players in policing the safety of the food supply. Other agencies have supporting roles, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to the Department of Homeland Security. Many experts and consumer advocates now support the creation of a single national food safety agency. In the past, this idea has been aggressively opposed by the beef and poultry industries, which would lose their close relationships to USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, as well as by most other agricultural groups. Opposition to this idea also has been registered by many citizens predominantly concerned with a new concentration of power by government and another major expansion of the federal bureaucracy.
Even if such a new super food safety agency is not created, other change is likely to occur. Increased federal investment in support of additional food safety personnel at FDA, more food safety research, and additional product testing all will be actively discussed over the coming year. In addition, greater police powers associated with consumer recalls of fruits and vegetables in the marketplace and enforcement of regulations related to produce are likely to be granted to FDA. Regulators may well have the explicit power to shut down produce sales and fine, if not jail, offenders.
But what regulations? Current law revolves mainly around preventing the introduction of adulterated product into the nation’s food supply. Other traditional food processors have had a good deal of experience with this legal structure, as have federal regulators. Fruit and vegetable growers have not.
On the fresh side of our business, no kill step is readily apparent for such pathogens as E. coli or Salmonella. While our apple juice producers have pasteurization to eliminate E. coli, for most in our industry such certain safety measures are not available.
Our shippers already face a crazy-quilt pattern of retail buyer specifications related to voluntary food safety systems, which are usually based on HACCP principles. These require both record keeping and independent audits, and are based on individualized assessments of hazards at critical control points.
While zero risk is an unobtainable goal, actions can be undertaken to minimize the potential occurrence of severe consumer health problems.
At the farm level, specific prevention measures, for example guarding against tainted water supplies and fencing out animals, are being advocated and might be useful. But how often—and for what specific potential microscopic problem—can you realistically test irrigation water. And while it makes sense not to have a vegetable field abutting a cattle feedlot, how would a grower fence his orchard against the hawk wheeling overhead or the coyote loping through?
Tree fruits, being grown away from the soil, have fewer risks than leafy greens, such as spinach, and this fact should be recognized by any new federal rules. Another important item of contention will be the treatment of imports. How can the United States make sure produce grown elsewhere, such as the People’s Republic of China, meets the equivalent growing and packing standards—and related costs—that might be imposed on our industry in the name of food safety? There will be many such vexing questions on the specific requirements of any newly imposed food safety program.
The great question before Congress is whether the system for produce safety in our country will remain largely voluntary or come under a new and expansive federal mandate. While our industry must always oppose costly and ineffective actions that do not add to consumer food safety, we are at a stage when national forces may well pull us in directions that are not of our choosing. However, being thoughtfully open to change may be essential if we are to maintain our ability to state, without fear of contradiction, that ours is the safest food supply in the world.