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Debate heats up over FDA's fresh-cut produce guidelines

The Food and Drug Administration published recommendations last week advising processors of fresh-cut produce how to minimize food safety risks. While some industry groups are pleased, others say the FDA should issue binding guidelines.

The guidance, still waiting for final approval by the White House Office of Management and Budget, provides recommendations for contamination prevention in fresh-cut produce, including tips on plant layout, water standards, and employee hygiene, among others. Since processing produce into fresh-cut product increases the risk of bacterial contamination because of increased handling, the FDA said it issued these safety recommendations to minimize the risk of microbial hazards.

"Ensuring the safety of the American food supply is one of this Agency's top priorities," said Andrew C. von Eschenback, MD, Commissioner of Food and Drugs in a statement. "Americans are eating more fresh-cut produce, which we encourage as part of a healthy diet. But fresh-cut produce is one area in which we see food-borne illness occur. Offering clearer guidance to industry should aid in the reduction of health hazards that may be introduced or increased during the fresh-cut produce production process."

But some industry watchdogs, like Safe Tables Our Priority, a non-profit organization that works to promote food safety and prevent food-borne illness, feel the FDA isn't taking a tough enough stance. Nancy Donley, president of STOP, said she'd like to see regulations that have teeth in them. "I think [these recommendations] are 80 pages of nothing," Donley said. "I believe there are some industry players who are already taking these precautions, but there are others who aren't—and they can just follow these recommendations at will," she said. "There needs to be an even level of safety. We need regulations that are enforced."

Fresh-cut produce is the fastest-growing segment of the $12 billion annual produce industry, and recent food-borne illness outbreaks related to this category have lessened some consumers' trust in its safety. "Consumers want to know that their food is safe, and my thinking is that the industry will use [these recommendations]," said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations at the Produce Marketing Association. "What folks tend to forget is that we took a huge financial hit after the outbreaks, and it is in the produce industry's financial interest to do whatever it takes to make the product safe and regain consumer trust and confidence."

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