Food Fight: Weaknesses within the food supply chain exposed

| 5/2/2007

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on safely handling and delivering produce. Click here to read the second part in the series, which explores the impact of contaminated produce on small-business truckers. The third part of the series, which explores the problems with self-regulation, can be read here.

For several months now, OOIDA and members of Congress have been questioning whether the produce industry should be allowed to regulate itself, and while a growers’ representative told Land Line that he understands why truckers are frustrated, he said growers still believe the best approach is a voluntary one.

A U.S. representative challenged that last week at a congressional hearing.

“It absolutely shocks people, when I explain to them that, during an outbreak in food-borne illness like the ones we’ll hear about today, the federal government’s hands are tied when it comes to recalls,” Rep. Diana Degette, D-CO, said at the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing.

Tim Chelling, vice president of communications for Western Growers, said that while making sure recalled product doesn’t make its way into the food supply chain is a “legitimate concern,” he said voluntary recalls are getting the job done.

“There is no consideration overall about recall,” he said. “The recall question is taken care of in real life by the fact that retailers are the recall step by just taking it off their shelves. And companies voluntarily recall stuff for liability purposes if nothing else, besides safety.”

Joe Rajkovacz, regulatory affairs specialist at OOIDA, said Western Growers’ answers regarding voluntary recall procedures are “inadequate to assure that all product is removed from the marketplace.”

“Apparently, Western Growers and others within the fresh produce industry believe that if they continue to ‘spin’ this issue as voluntary recalls being fully effective, they can continue to bury unsuspecting consumers and politicians with the real truth,” Rajkovacz said.

A recent General Accountability Office report designated the federal oversight of food safety as a “high-risk area” and recommended the FDA be given mandatory food recall authority. The FDA currently relies on the food industry to voluntarily recall its products when there is a problem.

“The only real question is who do you believe here – Western Growers, who speak for the produce industry or the GAO, who recommends mandatory powers be given to the FDA. If public reaction to OOIDA’s recent testimony at the FDA hearing in College Park is a barometer, I suspect most will believe the GAO, and they’d be right.”

Western Growers represents more than 3,000 shippers in California and Arizona and is a proponent of the California Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement, which would require all signatory leafy green handlers to only purchase product from growers who adhere to the voluntary agreement’s Leafy Greens Good Agricultural Practices.

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer