Feds seek to boost produce safety

Los Angeles Times

What are the best practices for raising and packing fruits and vegetables?

The Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture want to know, and so does a produce industry racked by expensive recalls of spinach, peanuts, pistachios and other products in recent years.

The two government agencies and Cornell University on Thursday announced a three-year, $1.15 million partnership to compile and share information about the safest ways of growing and packing produce. The Produce Safety Alliance’s mandate includes launching a website to distribute its findings and setting up an educational network to spread knowledge of good agricultural practices.

The alliance will be based at Cornell, home to a nationally regarded agriculture standards program.

“It’s a good thing that there’s an effort being made to get everybody on the same page,” said Ray Gilmer, of United Fresh Produce, the leading trade group for fruit and vegetable producers.

The Alliance’s work will contribute to the foundation of a produce safety rule FDA is expected to issue next year that will apply to the growing, harvesting and packing of produce. 

That rule will set product-specific standards producers will be required to meet in an effort to cut down on or eliminate the outbreaks of e.coli, listeria and other food-borne pathogens that have sickened and in some cases killed consumers while costing growers millions.

FDA already has issued non-binding guidance for tomatoes, leafy greens and melons, so the industry already has some idea of agency thinking on safety standards that might go into a rule, Gilmer said.

Egg, juice and seafood producers already operate under industry-specific rules.

That kind of rule-making may take on increasing importance in the food safety arena.  Legislation that would overhaul the nation’s food safety laws has been stalled in the Senate for a year, and prospects for passage in a lame duck session are unclear at best, leaving administrative action as the main route to bolstering the food safety system.

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