United Fresh President Testifies at Senate Hearing on Food Safety Bill

The president of the United Fresh Produce Association testified recently at the first Senate hearing held to examine the Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510).

Introduced in March by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), S. 510 is the Senate’s own version of the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 (H.R. 2749), which passed the House in late July. Legislators expect to combine the House and Senate versions into a single bill.

Tom Stenzel, president of United Fresh, and Michael Roberson, director of corporate quality assurance for Publix Super Markets, testified before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions on Oct. 22. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and the Center for Science in the Public Interest also testified at the hearing.

“Earlier this year, our association brought together worldwide leaders in produce safety standards and auditing, launching an ongoing initiative to drive harmonization around the most rigorous set of good agricultural practices known as GAPs, applicable to all produce operations,” said Stenzel as he addressed the committee.

“And, the committee should be familiar with our Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), an industry-wide commitment launched by three major trade associations in 2008 to drive a standardized, total supply chain traceability system with case coding to allow rapid traceback and isolation of any potential problems.

“I can tell you with certainty today that produce is safer today than ever before, with an unprecedented commitment from food safety from field to table.”

Stenzel cautioned, however, that food safety laws must allow for a commodity-specific approach based on the best available science. “In a highly diverse industry that is more aptly described as hundreds of different commodity industries, one size clearly does not fit all,” he noted. “In addition, government and industry alike must be careful that broad strokes do not result in requirements that should not apply to specific commodities, and do nothing to enhance safety. Taking a general approach would be far too easy to add regulatory costs and burdens to sectors where those requirements are unneeded, without doing anything to enhance safety where most critical.”

The United Fresh president also stressed the need for consistent regulations applicable to identified commodities, no matter where they are grown, packaged or imported into the United States. He also explained the need for laws to have sufficient federal oversight.

“We believe that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is the public health agency charged by law with ensuring the safety of the nation’s produce supply, must determine appropriate nationwide safety standards in an open and transparent process, with full input from the states, industry, academia, consumers and all stakeholders,” he said. “We are strong advocates for food safety standards based on sound science and a clear consensus of expert stakeholders.”

Stenzel also stressed the need to reform outbreak management, citing the salmonella outbreak of 2008 that nearly shut down the tomato industry yet was eventually linked to jalapeño peppers.

Read Stenzel’s complete testimony.

View a video recording of the entire hearing.

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