Food safety issues remain a priority for policy makers
Calls to revamp government food safety systems have been renewed, in the wake of salmonella cases linked to peanut products. Farm groups say they expect the issue to remain active among policy makers in the nation's capital.
"Congress and the new administration will be sure to consider changes to the way the government oversees the safety of food production," said Josh Rolph, director of congressional relations in the California Farm Bureau National Affairs and Research Division. "We want to make sure that any changes don't prove to be burdensome to farmers, who are growing the safest food supply in the world."
The Obama administration reportedly remains concerned about the safety of food products and commodities entering and leaving the United States. A priority for the newly seated president, safety improvements in the nation's food system have taken a temporary back seat due to the current economic crisis, Rolph said.
"There are certain members of Congress in influential positions who are eager to move quickly on food safety reforms once they get a chance. Some are advocating a single food safety agency and others are looking at current farm practices," Rolph said. "We know where they stand, which gives us an opportunity to be proactive in the debate."
Farm Bureau suggests that existing food safety systems and public research have not been adequately funded. Funding of the government's safety functions and accurate information on which they are based form an essential first step to improving food safety, said Ron Gaskill, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation. Inspection systems must be properly designed and then fully funded to ensure accurate implementation with trained inspectors, he said. In addition, more accurate and timely responses to outbreaks are critical to identify contaminated products, remove them from the market and minimize disruption to producers, Gaskill added.
Fifteen federal agencies collectively administer more than 30 laws related to food safety and protection. The Food Safety and Inspection Service within the U.S. Department of Agriculture is involved with meat, poultry and processed egg products. The Food and Drug Administration covers most other food products, with some exceptons. Fish and seafood, for example, are covered by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"Anyone can see that the current way the federal government addresses food safety is complex. But there is something to be said for the current process that highlights specific areas of expertise among agencies. We are looking closely at proposed bills to explore what is in the best interest for California's farmers," Rolph said.
The nation's farming community understands the need to improve food safety, Rolph said, but the farm-level impact to producers must be considered in any new food safety proposals. Efforts suggested by the government to improve food safety, such as instituting mandatory recall authority and traceability—the tracking of food throughout the supply chain—could ultimately impact farmers and ranchers.
Salinas vegetable farmer Dirk Giannini, recalling the E. coli contamination of spinach in 2006, said that actions taken to improve food safety must be based on science.
"There's been a frenzy where people are coming up with non-scientific ideas and are making the farmers jump through hoops that are off in left field," Giannini said. "And don't get me wrong, the farmers do not want to jeopardize anyone's health or life—we have the safest food supply in the world. But the scientific-based decisions are the ones that we need to move forward."
Although using traceability systems as a way to address food safety issues is on many lawmakers' to-do lists, a study on traceability by the USDA Economic Research Service indicates that having such a system in place does not alone guarantee safety. The report states that "traceability is only one means to efficient supply-side management, product differentiation, and food safety and it alone cannot accomplish any of these objectives. Simply knowing where a product is in the supply chain does not improve supply management unless the traceability system is paired with a real-time delivery system or some other inventory-control system."
The ERS report also mentions that "the better and more precise the tracing system, the faster a producer can identify and resolve food safety or quality problems." Retailers such as Wal-Mart have required suppliers to adopt proprietary supply-chain information systems. In addition, many buyers, including restaurants and grocery stores, now require suppliers to establish traceability systems and to verify, often through third-party certification, that such systems work.
Frito-Lay, which has more than 36 nut and seed products, has increased its focus on "country of harvest" source tracings and supplier quality assurance in response to buyer demand.
"Time matters in these product traces. A couple of years ago we maybe took three days to two weeks. The standard is now four hours to be able to provide your customer with a code trace," said Kathy Kent-Riggs, ingredient quality enabler for Frito-Lay, who spoke to almond growers at the Almond Board of California annual industry conference in Modesto late last year. "Being able to find out if we have an issue, where that issue is, and to surgically remove it is what is going to drive us as we go forward."
Almond grower Scott Hunter, a director of the Almond Board, started a "good agricultural practice" program in 2005 on his 1,200-acre family farm in Livingston. Through this program, Hunter is able to trace an almond that leaves his ranch not only to a specific orchard, but to a 10-row block of trees. He said the program has also helped with other aspects of farming, such as which areas of an orchard are doing well based on soil type as well as nut quality.
"Traceability is a great tool to have after the fact of there being a food incident, but the issue comes down to having a safe product," Hunter said. "Everybody wants to provide a safe product. The question is, just how do we get there in a way that is economical and effective? You can spend a lot of time, money and energy tracing something back, but traceability does not ensure food safety."
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
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