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Robert Guenther

Food Safety Talks
NGFN asks insiders about current food safety negotiations in Washington D.C.

Robert GuentherOur third interview is with Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy at the United Fresh Produce Association. Last week we heard from Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist at the consumer advocacy group, Food and Water Watch. Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, kicked off this Q&A series with a perspective from the organic and sustainable agriculture side of things.

The United Fresh Produce Association has been around since 1904 and represents more than 1,500 growers, packers, shippers, fresh-cut processors, distributors and marketers of fresh fruits and vegetables. Its members account for the vast majority of produce sold in the United States.



Patty: Why is United Fresh Produce so engaged in food safety deliberations in Washington? What have been your key priorities?

Robert: United Fresh has been active in industry driven food safety for over a decade. Recent advocacy came after the E. coli outbreak associated with one brand of spinach in September 2006, when the Food and Drug Administration shut down the entire spinach market. The industry realized it needed to get a stronger partnership with the federal government, and government in general, to ensure consumer confidence. We put some priorities related to food safety standards in place, and that really kicked off the effort we've had in the industry over the last three to four years.

First and foremost, related to produce standards, we want to make sure they are science-based, risk-based, and commodity specific. We recognize that not one standard fits all; the food safety risk that may be associated with leafy greens or tomatoes may be a lot different than with apples and oranges.

We want to make sure consumers have confidence in produce every day. From an economic standpoint, we also can't afford to have the industry blocked by the kind of shut downs that happened with spinach and then tomatoes two years later, when the problem turned out to be from peppers.


What is your opinion on the current state of the legislation, both the House-passed Food Safety Enhancement Act 2009 and the Senate bill on its way to the floor, S510?

We're fairly pleased with the House-passed bill. In the Senate, we need to see what happens on the floor with amendments that are in process.

The House bill is headed in the right direction but we still need to see stronger commodity specific requirements versus a broad standard in place for all produce. The intention from Congress needs to be clear that FDA should make sure it is looking at commodities that are most susceptible to outbreaks and not develop a broad standard and apply it to all commodities, which is a poor use of resources. We need to set this foundation in place so FDA can use it in the future, if they feel a commodity poses higher risks, to develop a standard for that commodity.

In the Senate, we need to scrutinize traceability provisions to make sure they do not overburden the food industry and production agriculture with unnecessary requirements. We have to make sure traceability requirements are flexible and can adapt to new technology as it becomes available, while also staying conscious of cost factors.

Thirdly, both bills need to focus more on what happens when there is an outbreak. They need to look at how the government works cooperatively with industry on mitigating the risk and communicating with consumers and industry. The federal government needs to have a strong plan in place to quickly address an issue, trace it back, and correct it.


How to pay for FDA's new inspection duties is a contentious question. What does UFP think about provisions in the legislation for covering FDA's costs?

It is clear government has a vested interested in providing the right resources for food safety. Using fees, which is a tax on the industry, is really unfortunate when the federal government should accept this responsibility like it does national defense or education.

Plus we know that FDA receives plenty of resources now to do a lot.  Federal funding for food safety has increased since 2007 by more than $300 million.  Congress should continue to increase the funding available for food safety related activities at FDA.

What do you think of the concept of "identity preserved" foods as a category separate from products that contain food commingled from many sources? Local food and sustainable agriculture advocates have brought this concept forward as a way to differentiate food that comes to market through face-to-face or very short supply chains.

FDA has the responsibility to protect consumers no matter where the food is grown or how it is grown or prepared for consumer consumption. We have to have better science before we start segregating out whole commodities, like a head of lettuce versus a mixed bag of lettuce.

What about when the farm's identity stays with the produce from farm to retail?

I think we have that right now.  You can go into most groceries today and find locally grown programs that identify the farm and tell an important story about how agriculture is vital to the American economy.  On packaging many of our members and farmers have their family names on their fresh produce commodities. The ability to maintain a so-called “identity preserved” food is not a new concept no matter what size your production level and is well established in fresh produce.

There are laws in place that mandate information be accurate and truthful to the consumer related to fresh produce. The 2008 Farm bill established a mandatory country of origin labeling requirement, which requires fresh produce to include country of origin information on its products. The Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act requires that all information that is on a label is accurate and truthful that is on a fruit or vegetable.

If "identity preserved" means that consumers can go to a farmers market and be assured that it comes from a certain farm, then we're OK with that having fewer requirements; we would be in agreement with Brian Snyder (sustainable agriculture advocate interviewed earlier). The challenge we have here is making sure you can identify that produce and know where it is coming from. Recent press reports, such as an article in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago, highlights that there may be very little information about the product that consumers are assuming were grown by that vendor.


Traceability is the watchword in food safety negotiations. How do you believe traceability can be achieved in the commingled commodity food stream?

Traceability is about how to trace a product back if there is a problem. If there is an outbreak, FDA or state health officials have to be able to do it quickly, safely, and efficiently. We can't spend two to three to four weeks trying to find out where the problem is.

As long as you are able to effectively identify a product and trace it back, it really doesn't matter whether it is a whole commodity, like a cantaloupe, or a commingled commodity, like cut cantaloupe, or if it's coming from California or from nearby in New York. That's the goal. What FDA does with it is another question.

Is it not more difficult to trace commingled products in longer supply chains? And what is United Fresh doing to help the industry and FDA improve traceability?

It depends on the commodity and on technology people want to use. There are all sorts of systems out there right now, whether bar codes or simple packaging in the store that identifies the farm where it is grown and packed.

We believe most everybody has an effective internal traceability system for the most part; keeping records of where they bought products and where they sold them. Our challenge is with external traceability, when an outbreak happens because of something outside the company.

We've been involved in the industry-led Produce Traceability Initiative (proposed electronic tracking) trying to look at external traceability systems that can be used by multiple commodities and standardized for dealing with outbreaks quickly and efficiently.

We're now looking at initiating some pilot tests with different commodities to see what's effective. This pilot approach is consistent with what's in the legislation now (provisions to pilot traceability approaches). We've certainly talked with FDA about it.

FDA is going to make traceability a requirement. I think the question is 'Who does traceability apply to?' If it's going to be risk based then we better have mandatory traceability systems in place for commodities that are more susceptible to outbreaks. Should we mandate it for sweet potatoes or citrus (low risk), I don't think so.

A lot of work needs to be done yet and it's going to be a big part of the conference committee process, when the House and Senate start reconciling their two bills.


What is your perspective on exemption proposals for certain farms?

If you're selling into a commercial market, whether food service or retail, whether direct to consumers or not, exemptions should not be in place. It's a faulty approach to base exemptions on what they grow, how they grow it, or who they sell to.

The approach should be for FDA to focus on the commodities most susceptible to food safety outbreaks. We don't know that lettuce sold at a farmers market is any safer. We are not aware FDA has done any baseline research or testing at farmers markets. That doesn't mean no contamination is happening there. Selling at a certain place, like a farmers market, should not be the determination. We do know that most of the federal funding around testing and research going on right now is focused on bagged leafy greens and tomatoes for instance.  Therefore, you may find samples that may have the presence of a microbiological contaminant.

But it doesn't have to be overly complicated. Requirements should be scale appropriate, based on the size of the operation, what they grow, how they grow it. This doesn't mean exemption. But certainly FDA can recognize the scale and put in place the appropriate type of requirements.


What about food safety activity outside of this legislative process (i.e. California Leafy Greens Agreement)? What's your position?

The California Leafy Greens Agreement has been good at standardizing food safety requirements for leafy greens. Also it puts everybody signed up with it on a level playing field. Because it is industry driven it is flexible and can adapt to new science, new technology, new information from research. It's a model for how FDA could put a standard into place. We support the proposed National Leafy Greens Agreement.

But you have to be careful here because what's good for California may not be good for other parts of the country that are also growing leafy greens. It's a challenge that is part of developing a commodity specific standard but also making it adaptable based on region, how things are grown etc.

A lot of the concern about clear-cutting or taking away riparian type vegetation on farms has to do with standards that customers (i.e. large retail customers) are putting out on their own (for instance see this press release from Wildfarm Alliance). There is nothing in the Agreement that would require that.

We are working on harmonizing different standards out there to avoid those kinds of customer-driven "supermetrics" where people are dealing with 15 different types of standards. Hopefully we can get some standards -- whether through the GAP (USDA Good Agricultural Practices) harmonization process, FDA produce standards process, or traceability provisions in the pending legislation -- that will help weed out the different requirements the customer base is putting on the supply side.


If you could write your own food safety bill from scratch, what would be your top three provisions?

For produce, we would focus on commodity-specific, risk-based, science-based standards to make sure FDA is focusing its resources where it needs to focus its resources and developing standards that are workable and scale appropriate.

Secondly, even when this legislation passes and standards are developed; there will still be outbreaks of food borne illnesses. The question is how to develop an effective government system to identify the problem quickly and get to the root of it, and to communicate in a positive way to consumers so they don't think all food is at risk.

Third, we need a traceability system that is adaptable, flexible, and can use a multitude of technologies but is also scale appropriate so some of the costly technology is not necessarily required.

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