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Tony Corbo

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


Tony CorboAs the U.S. Senate prepares to vote on new food safety regulations, National Good Food Network consultant Patty Cantrell asks leading participants in the process what they think.

Our second interview is with Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for the food campaign at Food & Water Watch. Last week, we heard from Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.

Food & Water Watch is one of several consumer advocacy organizations involved in the legislative negotiations around food safety. While pushing for more federal authority over food safety, the organization has also worked to educate lawmakers and other consumer groups about the great diversity of farming practices and types of food processors.



Patty: Why is it that Food & Water Watch is so engaged in this issue? What has been your key priority in food safety negotiations?

Tony: Food & Water Watch is a consumer advocacy organization with staff that has been involved for many years in the meat and poultry side of food safety, the side that the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates. We have become involved in the FDA food safety legislation because we realized that the Food and Drug Administration regulates the other 80 percent of the food supply; that is, all the fresh produce, seafood, and processed foods outside the 20 percent (meat and poultry) that USDA oversees.

Our major concern is that FDA does not have the same inspection authority. We're working to increase FDA's authority and the resources it has to better inspect the food supply.

FDA inspects food facilities under its jurisdiction maybe every five to 10 years, compared to USDA daily inspection of meat processing plants and on-site inspection at slaughter. Even more appalling is FDA inspection of imported products.

On the FDA side (produce, seafood, processed foods), only about 1 percent of imported products is inspected at ports of entry compared to about 10 percent on the USDA side (meat and poultry). The USDA visits annually the 34 countries eligible to export meat and poultry to the U.S. to ensure they meet our food safety standards. The FDA rarely visits the 150 countries that export their food products to the U.S.

That's a concern when you consider, for example, that we're importing more than 80 percent of our seafood and 60 percent of our produce right now. [See the Global Grocer interactive database at Food & Water Watch.]

FDA's lack of authority comes from the fact that the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act has not changed in more than 70 years; the last overhaul was in 1938. One of the problems is that this law does not allow FDA access to a company's food safety records until inspectors believe tainted food has made it into the food supply. In contrast, USDA has ongoing access to food safety records, no questions asked.

The Peanut Company of America incident a few years ago, in which 714 people fell ill and nine died, is a perfect example. Records revealed that the company knew it was putting salmonella tainted products into commerce. But because FDA did not have authority beforehand to actually review records, deadly contamination was allowed to occur.


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

The House version does grant FDA needed access to a facility's food safety records. The Senate version does not; FDA still has to meet the "reasonable suspicion" requirement before it can see records.

At the same time, we're concerned with how the legislation could be too onerous on smaller producers and processors and keep them from growing their businesses. We pushed in the House version and helped win language that requires FDA to take several issues into account before it drafts final rules. Those considerations include the impact of new recordkeeping on smaller businesses, like farms with a wide variety of crops, and how the rules interact with existing programs, like national organic standards or wildlife protection and conservation measures on farms. The sustainable agriculture community has elevated that discussion even further on the Senate side.

FDA food safety officials have been very receptive to listening to these concerns. They've actually gone to public meetings and said they don't want to end up with one-size-fits-all requirements.  These officials will be required to write implementing regulations once the legislation is passed. It could take several years for FDA to propose and finalize these rules, and there will be opportunities for the public to weigh in.

As for imports, both bills will improve surveillance. The House bill would force FDA to inspect foreign facilities as frequently as they inspect domestic food facilities and sets up a foreign inspection division to focus on it. But because that is a very costly proposition, we are likely in the end to come up with some alternative, such as a certification system by the country that's exporting.


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

Both bills try to focus FDA efforts by requiring the agency to set an inspection frequency for different risk levels, which FDA would determine. The House bill is stronger; it requires FDA to inspect high-risk facilities every six to 12 months. The Senate bill requires annual inspections of high-risk facilities. The fact that this is a mandate means Congress will have to come up with an appropriation to meet the inspection frequency that the legislation ends up with after it goes through conference committee.

In addition, the House bill has a registration fee of $500 for food facilities; that is, food processing facilities, not farms. The Senate version does not include a registration fee.

We would have preferred a tiered system of fees; the flat fee in the House bill is not very fair. One example is an artisanal cheese maker in Vermont making maybe 50 pounds of cheese per day compared to a Kraft plant down the road producing 50,000 pounds of cheese per day paying the same $500 per year.


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.

As far as something like farmers turning tomatoes into salsa and selling it directly at a farmers market ... that kind of transaction should not require all of the tracing requirements that the Cargill’s of the world should be required to do.

Beyond direct face-to-face marketing, it becomes a little more problematic, especially if there's any commingling of product. Some of the questions are how to define local and how it applies, such as whether Internet sales are included.

In those instances where you can define the smaller or local supply chain, there should be fewer requirements. We're still trying to grapple with it, but we want to encourage local farmers selling to grocery stores, restaurants, and the whole farm-to-school arena. We're very engaged in that campaign as well.

If you're dealing with a small supply chain, like a farmers market, you shouldn't have to invest in an elaborate food safety system. If a product is contaminated you know who to go back to. It may just require a label on the jar with the farm's name, address, and telephone number for tracing.


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

It's a tough issue. The FDA has had a trace-back procedure on its books for years for ingredients that go into drugs, but the agency has still not implemented it very well.

We're seeking a reasonable approach with the food safety legislation. Before FDA requires people to spend thousands of dollars on technology (and procedures) that may not work, we're saying let's look at the situation more deliberately. That's why both bills have pilot traceability programs that FDA will have to conduct and evaluate before it decides on any hard and fast traceability program.

Anything FDA comes up with needs also to be scale appropriate. We met with FDA last year and tried to educate them about small farms that might have 15 different crops. Some of the folks working there are used to California where a farm may have 10,000 acres in lettuce. But that's not the case across the country. We said if you require smaller diversified farms to have a food safety plan for every crop, you are going to drive these guys out of business.  FDA has listened to this and to the need to reduce paperwork requirements.


What is your perspective on exemption proposals for certain farms?

It winds up being a very difficult issue. One of the problems, for example, with an amendment proposed by Senator Jon Tester, is that it talks about exempting farms with less than $500,000 in adjusted gross income. But if you look at USDA's agricultural census, that's 95 percent of all farms. Granted they only produce 30 percent of the products in the food supply, but that's a large number of farms.

Another problem is that if you exempt farms by income, you have to exempt any farm from abroad in that income range. The latest number from China is that average farm income is $744 per year.

It would be next to impossible to enforce some income level on the Chinese. You also cannot impose a stricter standard on imports than you have for domestic products. Countries could file a charge with the World Trade Organization and would win.

We're working with different concepts to help Sen. Tester achieve what he wants to do. We appreciate the need to not overburden smaller producers and to make sure the local foods market flourishes.


What about food safety activity outside of this legislative process (i.e. the proposed national leafy greens agreement)? Are you involved in or watching any of that, and why?

Because FDA has not set food safety standards for a lot of foods we now have all these private standards going into place. Grocery stores are setting up their own standards. We have the California Leafy Greens Agreement, which is a private industry food safety program. Conflicting private standards being required of farmers and processors have led to horror stories. Some farmers have to keep six different sets of food safety records depending on who they are selling to; Safeway wants it one way, Wal-Mart wants it another...

Under this legislation the federal government will be required to set up some basic food safety standards. It will force some order in the market. The final set of regulations also should be tiered to allow for different scales of farms and food processors.

Food & Water Watch opposes the attempt to nationalize the California Leafy Greens Agreement, which western produce growers have petitioned USDA to consider. If we're going to have food safety standards, government, not industry, should set them.

What happened with the California Leafy Greens Agreement is a perfect example of how the industry has gone way overboard with requirements, for example, that fields be sterilized and conservation measures like vegetative buffers taken out. For all the talk by big operations about having standards based on science, some of the stuff California did was not justified by any science. Vegetative buffers can actually keep pathogens from coming onto your farm because they act as filters. Farms that did not comply lost sales and those that did comply incurred large costs.


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

From the standpoint of FDA authority, we're very concerned about making sure domestic and foreign facilities are inspected at a reasonable frequency. We're not happy with six months to a year; we would rather have much more frequency. That would be number one.

Second, we would want to have an effective system in place for monitoring the safety of imported food.

Third, we need to have a food safety system in place that recognizes the range of companies that this legislation would cover. The food system is not all made of Cargill’s and Kellogg’s. There are smaller producers and processors, and they're making a vital contribution to the food supply in the country, including food safety, and they should not be snuffed out.

Food & Water Watch has worked hard to educate other consumer groups about this diversity and its importance.

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