Still no agreement on who should oversee produce industry

| 3/22/2007

While U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials have admitted that growing and packing practices for fresh fruits and vegetables needs to improve, they went on to say they favor voluntary guidelines that would allow the produce industry to regulate itself.

At a recent FDA public hearing on the issue, Elisa Odabashian, West Coast director of Consumers Union - who has been critical of the FDA's stance to allow the produce industry to self-police - said the agency isn't doing nearly enough to protect consumers from future food-borne outbreaks.

And many produce truckers - including OOIDA Regulatory Affairs Specialist Joe Rajkovacz who hauled produce for 20 years before joining the Association's staff - say that the FDA isn't doing anything to ensure the physical or financial safety of those who transport the nation's food.

Many of the concerns raised by Odabashian are among the concerns the truckers have.

"If the leafy green industry ever hopes to regain consumer trust, it must be regulated by an authority other than itself," Odabashian said at the hearing.

"At this moment all across America, the consumer perspective is one of deep disappointment in government agencies, both at federal and state levels, that have failed to safeguard the food supply."

In an attempt to thwart government regulations by the FDA and other government agencies, the produce industry rolled out its own voluntary Leafy Green Marketing Agreement for Handlers in California, which was certified by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and led by the industry-backed Western Growers Association. California growers are expected to adopt the new voluntary set of standards next week.

In exchange for voluntary participation in the marketing agreement, companies would pay money to use a certification mark on their produce in exchange for following suggested best practices adopted by the industry-led Leafy Green Handler Advisory Board.

Odabashian said this is the wrong approach to improving food safety standards.

"Safety should not be used as a marketing tool when it comes to food," she said. "It should not be something that consumers must search out and possibly pay extra for - leaving poor consumers at risk."

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association recently sent a letter of support for a proposal by Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, whose proposed legislation in California would impose mandatory regulations and enforcement actions within the state.

The legislation also supports the need for federal oversight to ensure and protect public health A Senate hearing on the food safety bills has been rescheduled for Tuesday, March 27.

James Gorny, vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, said at the public hearing he believes the only way to improve consumer confidence in the federal government is through federal oversight and mandatory regulation.

- By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer