USDA, FDA in crisis as outbreaks linked to produce, meat continue

| 7/17/2008

For almost two years now, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has been critical of the nation’s food safety system after truckers were left “holding the bag” with potentially contaminated bagged spinach on their trailers and nowhere to go with it.

And while food is usually in transit when a recall or consumer advisory is issued, the federal agencies in charge of protecting the nation’s food supply have seemingly ignored the importance of including truckers in meaningful discussions on food safety.

OOIDA Regulatory Affairs Specialist Joe Rajkovacz testified at an FDA hearing in College Park, MD, more than a year ago on the need to include truckers’ input when discussing the food supply chain from “farm to fork.”

“Truckers who haul food products have valuable insight on food safety issues,” Rajkovacz said. “Everyone else in the food supply chain is represented except the truckers.”

And still the outbreaks continue
During a season when many truckers depend on making a living hauling tomatoes, some made the decision not to haul them or simply couldn’t find any tomatoes to haul recently. This came after the FDA announced a consumer advisory against eating certain types of tomatoes because of potential Salmonella contamination more than five weeks ago.

So far, more than 1,065 people have been sickened and one has died in the outbreak that has reached 42 states, the District of Columbia and Canada.

Now, the FDA has expanded its net to include jalapeno peppers, serrano peppers and cilantro as possible sources of the rare Salmonella Saint Paul strain.

Some tomato growers and sellers have suggested taxpayers reimburse them for their economic losses because of the outbreak, which could reach $100 million.

Rajkovacz, who was a produce hauler before joining the Association’s staff full-time in 2006, said if the produce industry is asking for reimbursement for lost income, what about lost income for truck drivers?

“If the produce industry wants a bailout and taxpayers are asked to foot the bill, how about truckers who have lost economic opportunity because of the outbreak?” Rajkovacz said.

“The growers and others listed are not the only ones who have suffered financially. Asking for a taxpayer bailout is really an attempt to silence the FDA and make it more difficult for the agency to issue future advisories to consumers.”

The USDA has its problems too
In recent weeks, the USDA has recalled more than 5.3 million pounds of ground beef processed by Omaha-based Nebraska Beef Ltd., after more than 40 people became sick in six states after eating E.coli-contaminated meat.

Besides the beef recall, the USDA, which is in charge of inspecting agricultural products at the border, announced last week that one of its plant protection and quarantine officers in Larero, TX, has pleaded guilty to allowing trucks with plant pest-infested agricultural products into the U.S. from Mexico without being properly fumigated.

Jose Homero Reyes, 48, of Laredo, TX, will be sentenced Sept. 3. He has pleaded guilty to three fumigation-related violations going back to 2005.

Although the USDA has mandatory Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Procedures (HACCP) procedures for meat, poultry and eggs, the FDA has issued only voluntary guidances to follow.

Rajkovacz said the only way to ensure that everyone in the food supply chain is operating on the same playing field is through a regulatory process that requires them to do so.

“We have seen it time and time again where the produce industry wants to thwart the federal regulatory process,” he said. “Right now, when there is talk about ‘farm to fork’ food safety standards, there is a lot of talk with very little substance and this needs to change.”

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer