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ANAHEIM, Calif. – A workshop on food safety was turned into a breaking news event at the Produce Marketing Association's convention here Monday, as an official with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the workshop panel took the opportunity to brief industry members on the government's new Produce Safety Action Plan, released just hours before.
The final plan, many months in the making and the subject of much comment from, and collaboration with, players up and down the produce distribution pipeline, addresses all major points of potential contamination from the farm to the table.
The plan was introduced by Nega Beru, director of the division of plant product safety at FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. After he laid out a rationale for the initiative that included 1,100 reported major outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to produce in the past year, Beru said the final plan "builds on existing efforts, but the big difference is that it addresses all points between the farm and table where contamination could occur."
Beru said the final document does not contain any significant departures from earlier drafts that had been reviewed by the industry, and addresses and incorporates comments and suggestions from industry players.
Representatives from the two leading U.S. trade groups,PMA and the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, who shared the workshop stage with Beru, said they had not yet had time to review the final plan. They did, however, reiterate earlier industry concerns about the plan's emphasis on testing and surveillance as tools for reducing contamination and measuring industry compliance to the plan's guidelines.
The real-world effectiveness of that aspect of the action plan would in part come down to the availability of budget resources, or lack thereof, for the government to conduct baseline testing and surveillance of industry practices, said Donna Garren, v.p. of science and technical affairs for United. "You can't test your way to safe food," she added.
Beru said the final plan's four objectives are to prevent contamination of fresh produce with pathogens; to minimize the public health impact when contamination of fresh produce occurs; to improve communication with producers, packers, processors, transporters, distributors, preparers, consumers, and other government entities about fresh produce; and to facilitate and support research relevant to the contamination of fresh produce.
A copy of the action plan was posted on the FDA Web site Monday. To achieve the objective of minimizing the impact of contamination, the plan calls for the use of "tools such as facility inspections and surveys, and an increase in "routine monitoring of practices and conditions in the fresh produce supply chain, including farms, packing facilities, and distribution centers, to identify practices that could lead to the spread of contamination in produce." It also calls for expanded surveillance of fresh produce, "including both focused sampling of fresh produce with a history of association with illness outbreaks and expanded sampling of a broader range of produce items to obtain baseline data on the incidence of contamination."