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WASHINGTON -- Last year's E. coli outbreaks, linked to fresh spinach from central California and Mexican produce used by Taco Bell, underscore the need for stricter food safety oversight, the head of a House panel said yesterday at what is expected to be the first in a series of hearings examining the overall federal food safety structure in the coming months.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, chair of the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee, presided over the hearing, and leaders from the United Fresh Produce Association (United Fresh), the American Meat Institute (AMI), and the Consumers Union were among those testifying.
The hearing began with testimony from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on its latest report recommending comprehensive reform to food safety.
During the hearing, Tom Stenzel, president and c.e.o. of United Fresh, called food safety "our industry's top priority," noting that "it is a process, not a static achievement. We are on a continuum, constantly striving toward perfection, while understanding scientifically that perfection - or zero risk - is not possible."
Throughout his testimony, Stenzel emphatically reiterated the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh's call for strong federal oversight of clear, consistent science-based standards which would be applicable to all produce grown domestically or imported.
Citing a study released this week from Rutgers University indicating consumer confidence in fresh produce continues to be negatively affected long past last fall's spinach outbreak, Stenzel said, "This kind of fear...actually harms the public's health [and] should be as unacceptable to government public health leaders as it is to us. No matter how hard our industry works to ensure food safety, public confidence ultimately depends upon government as the final authority to set proper food safety standards and ensure that they are being met."
Stenzel then laid out then four key principles United Fresh advocates for the nation's food safety regulatory framework: harmonized produce food safety standards, federal oversight, assured compliance, and a commodity-specific and scientific approach.
"Together, the four principles I have outlined above provide a direction for food safety regulatory policy that we believe would most help our industry enhance produce safety, concurrent with establishing the highest level of public trust in our industry and in our fresh produce offerings," Stenzel said. "It is our goal to support a U.S. regulatory framework for the fresh produce industry that incorporates these principles."
A cooperative approach to food safety and inspection between industry and government and the meat industry's vote to make food safety a non-competitive issue have yielded significant, measurable results, said Mark Dopp, AMI's s.v.p./regulatory affairs and general counsel, during his testimony.
Calling the 1990s a "pivotal period" for the meat industry - particularly the early part of the decade when E. coli O157:H7 moved into the food safety spotlight and became the No. 1 enemy in the meat industry, and later, Listeria monocytogenes, Dopp said: "It was a time of both crisis and progress and it was a period when we recognized publicly what we knew intuitively: that optimal food safety was good not just for our customers, it was good for our businesses."
Dopp said AMI petitioned USDA to mandate HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) plans in all federally inspected meat plants, and subsequently ran an intensive HACCP training program to prepare the industry for the coming mandate.
During that period, Dopp said AMI's board "recognized that our collective knowledge was more powerful than the knowledge companies possessed individually," and thus voted to make food safety a non-competitive issue. "What that means is that when it comes to information about food safety that AMI member companies have developed or discovered, they share it with each other without hesitation. Simply put, good ideas get better when they are adopted widely."