As the nation's farmers enter a new growing season two years after 33 people died and 147 people were sickened in 28 states after eating listeria-infested canteloupe from a Colorado farm, the produce industry has effectively delayed implementation of a law intended to improve food safety.
The United Fresh Produce Association, which describes itself as "industry's leading trade association committed to driving the growth and success of produce companies and their partners" spearheaded the push for more time to comment on a pair of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules toughening safety standards for farms and processors.
The group was the lead signatory on a letter requesting the delay sent to the FDA earlier this month. Other signers include more than 80 produce groups, from the American Mushroom Institute to the Chilean Avocadan Importers Association.
The push for a extension of the comment period–will postpone implementation of a 2011 law known as the Food Safety and Modernization Act. The two rules at issue are available here and here on Docket Wrench, Sunlight's tool for tracking federal regulations and the comments on them.
"Based on our current analysis, it would be impossible for any interested party to meaningful comment on these two proposed rules by the current deadline…the sheer size of the regulations lengthens the time necessary for analysis," the letter from the produce group says.
At a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing last week, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, where agriculture is big business, asked FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg for the delay. "FDA took two years to draft the rules, yet they're allowing only 120 days for interested parties to comment," he said, according to a report in The Produce News. "A number of those parties have requested an extension. I'm hoping you're looking at that extension." Over his years in office, Blunt has collected more than $1 million from agricultural interests for his campaigns, according to a search on Influence Explorer.
In response, Hamburg said, "[W]e do intend to extend the comment period so we can hear all the concerns and address them fully." This week the FDA formally announced the delay of the due date for comments from May 16 to September 16.
A series of illness outbreaks caused by tainted food, from salmonella in peanut butter to e. coli in spinach, pushed Congress to approve the Food Safety and Modernization Act in 2010. President Barack Obama signed it into law on Jan. 4, 2011. At the time, the bill had bipartisan support. Following passage of the law–and more outbreaks of illness, including the cantaloupe scare in the summer of 2011–the FDA sent proposed regulations to the Office of Management and Budget for review in December 2011. There they sat until January of this year, when OMB released two of them for publication. The FDA plans to publish a total of five rules implementing the law.
"This is an extraordinarly long comment period for rules that have already been delayed," said Sarah Klein staff attorney for Center for Science in the Public Interest, "coming out of a law supported by industry and consumer groups we all agreed needed to happen. Now rules are coming up they are now in foot dragging mode."
The two proposed rules deal with new standards for farms growing produce and for processors that handle fruit and vegetables. They address issues such as possible contamination of water used in irrigation, worker hygiene, the creation of food safety plans, and new record keeping requirements. There are broad exemptions for small farms and processors and the proposed implementation schedule is staggered over several years.
At a symposium this week in Fort Collins, Colo., where public health experts gathered with agency and industry to discuss cantaloupe safety as farmers begin the planting season, it was clear that politics plays a big role in food marketing. Michael Hirakata, whose family has been growing melons in Rocky Ford since the early 1900s, talked not just about how the farm had voluntarily put in new safety controls following the 2011 listeria outbreak but also—but also how it helped launch a major new public relations push.
Hirakata is one of the founders of the new Rocky Ford Growers Association, launched in 2011 to "strengthen and protect the reputation of the world famous melons." One of the crucial elements to the group's success, he said, was the support of local politicians in Association events and activities, including Sen. Michael Bennet, Governor John Hickenlooper, and Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar. Collectively, the three have received more than $841,000 from agricultural interests for their congressional and gubernatorial campaigns, according to Influence Explorer, the lion's share, nearly $595,000, going to Salazar, who hails from rural Colorado. (Photo credit:Viktar Malyshchyts via iStockphoto.com)