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Washington moves fight for food safety forward

Ground beef and leafy greens among those to get closer review; organic to be audited

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released draft guidelines to help everyone from growers to merchants prevent food-borne hazards in tomatoes, leafy greens and melons.

The guidelines mark a fundamental shift in the way the FDA is working to eliminate microbial contamination in produce and a first step in what will be mandatory regulations for handling fruit and vegetables. The draft rules are based on guidelines originally developed by the produce industry.

"We think it's time the government actually starts doing its job, and in this case, it's to guarantee the safety of our food," said Jaydee Hanson, policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety. "What they did in the past was rely on the industry itself to do a good job and the industry hasn't been doing a good job, so what we have is for the first time in a while the government is aggressively telling the process industry, in particular, what a good job looks like and this is how you do prevention."

The FDA expects to publish its draft guidance on or before Oct. 7. The guidance will be open for comment for at least 60 days. The public is encouraged to comment and may submit electronic comments at When finalized, FDA officials say they anticipate the guidance will offer comprehensive recommendations on product tracing throughout the supply chain. The guidelines are intended to supplement existing rules.

The key elements of the FDA's draft guidance include:

  • An acceptable baseline standard of industry practices that help both domestic and foreign firms minimize the risk for microbial contamination of their products throughout the entire supply chain
  • Recommendations regarding growing, harvesting, packing, processing, transportation, and distribution of the product
  • Recommendations for recordkeeping, including some that will help the FDA determine more quickly the source of outbreaks that do occur.

The President's Food Safety Working Group, which was developed to recommend a new health-focused approach to food safety, called for the commodity-specific guidelines as part of a strategy being finalized. The goal is to "prevent harm to consumers, use good data and analysis to ensure effective food safety inspections and enforcement of the law." When outbreaks of food-borne illness happen, the agency wants them stopped quickly, FDA officials say.

"These proposed controls provide a guide for growers and processors to follow so they may better protect their produce from becoming contaminated," U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in an address to a group at a fresh-food market in Washington, D.C. in late July. "This strategy represents the kind of positive change promised by President Obama."

Melons, lettuce and leafy greens, tomatoes, and green onions are priority commodities because they have been identified as fruits and vegetables that tend to be more susceptible to microbial contamination, according to the FDA. Guidelines for green onions are being developed, as well.

In addition, the United States Department of Agriculture said it will begin regular testing of meat trimmings that go into ground beef to stem the spread of E. coli. While many processing plants claim they already conduct their own test, bench trim — the pieces of fat and meat cut from steak and roasts — have long been suspected as a possible source of E. coli in ground beef.

Peter Reichertz, a lawyer who specializes in food and drug regulatory law from the firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton in Los Angeles, said the USDA and FDA are on a roll, and the more that can be done from a scientific stand point to prevent contamination before meat is released for human consumption, the better.

"I think all the regulatory agencies, under the new administration, are really focused on food safety and trying to prevent some of the outbreaks," he said. "They are coming up with the mechanisms to prevent contamination, instead of dealing with after it has occurred, and I wouldn't be surprised if we see much more from the USDA and the FDA."

In an unrelated announcement last week, the USDA said its National Organic Program will undergo a stringent audit by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

According to the National Organic Coalition, USDA Deputy Secretary, Kathleen Merrigan, said the NOP must be scrutinized to strengthen the integrity of the program and the USDA organic seal.

The NOP is the USDA's regulatory body that administers the USDA organic seal and national standards for organic agricultural products sold in the United States. The National Organic Coalition has long called for more consistency of NOP rules.

"We applaud USDA's willingness to submit its organic program to the rigors of these international norms and believe this will pave the way for continued growth and success of the U.S. organic industry," Robynn Shrader, an NOC founder and CEO of the National Cooperative Grocers Association, said in a prepared statement.

This ongoing review will likely promote more transparency and strengthens the integrity of organic with regard to NOP's accreditation procedures. It also could help ensure certifiers, farmers and processing operations are treated in a more uniform manner under the program.

"What's happened under the last administration is that they have allowed the big companies to go out and shop for the weakest certifiers and the past administration pushed for more synthetic substances to be permitted in organic," Center for Food Safety's Hanson said. "We're excited that the National Organic Program has applied to the National Institute of Standards and Technology to help validate what its claims should be."

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