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Like famished diners restlessly awaiting their meal, industry stakeholders and consumer groups are getting itchy for the Senate to pass the long-awaited FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, which will provide the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with heightened resources and authority to help make prevention the focus of food safety strategies.
In a joint letter penned last month, 18 organizations, including the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), urged Senate leaders to make haste in approving the bipartisan bill that passed in the House in July. The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) was passed unanimously out of committee in November but still awaits a floor vote. If approved by the Senate, the two bills will be combined into one and sent to President Obama, who has repeatedly indicated his support for stronger food safety regulations.
It thus goes without saying that the future of pending food safety regulations, and the industry’s subsequent next-step responses, were a key topic of discussion at FMI’s recent Midwinter Executive Conference. In her keynote address during the event, Leslie Sarasin, FMI’s president and CEO, touched on the topic’s significance while outlining the trade group’s new strategic plan, which features an accelerated focus on related health-and-wellness and sustainability initiatives.
“While 2009 was a year spent introducing our industry to a new Administration, 2010 will become the ‘Year of the Regulator,’” Sarasin cautioned, noting that after legislation such as food safety is enacted, “lots of crucial decisions on how to implement these measures will fall to regulators. And as always, FMI will be there to tell your story about the impact these new regulatory schemes will have on your business.”
To help it capitalize on these and other opportunities, FMI commissioned a 15-member CEO-level “Strategic Thinking Committee” led by past board chairman Steve Smith, president and CEO of Abingdon, Va.-based K-VA-T Food Stores, who also hammered home the industry’s need to foster credibility and speak as one voice when squaring off with food safety opponents in the coming months, during remarks he shared during a separate conference event.
Interestingly, Smith’s advocacy of a heightened unified industry stance on food safety mirrored the key battle cry of featured participants the CIES International Food Safety Conference 2010 in Washington.
In welcoming a record-breaking 675 delegates from 39 countries to the conference, Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) managing director Jean-Marc Saubade said while consumer confidence has been dramatically shaken the world over following a series of high-profile food safety incidents, the industry must work collectively to restore confidence and ensure that all consumers can exercise their right to buy and consume safe food.
“We all have a duty to work together on a noncompetitive basis to deliver this,” he observed. “It is imperative to join up the dots: between farm and fork; between science, industry and regulators; between standards, auditors and suppliers ... The industry will speak as one voice.”
Saubade’s call for collaboration was backed by FMI’s Sarasin and GMA president/CEO Pamela G. Bailey, both of who pledged to work together and with the CGF to drive progress via the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), which the forum manages.
In a similar call to action, JP Suarez, Wal-Mart Stores’ international SVP/general counsel and GFSI board chairman, said the initiative shouldn’t be an expensive luxury that only the biggest companies can afford. “We need to reach the small suppliers and figure out how to make GFSI relevant,” said Suarez.
It’s encouraging to see a vigorous all-for-one/one-for-all mentality building across the industry for enhanced food safety oversight, but at this point, it seems clear that real change — with or without long-awaited regulatory action — will only be as effective as the efforts put forth by key stakeholders to make it happen.
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