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USDA Sends Produce Expert to FDA

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is getting help from an unlikely source—the Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

AMS is the 5,500-employee unit of USDA charged with marketing America’s agricultural abundance.

USDA’s marketing arm is sending over Leanne Skelton, chief of AMS’s Fresh Products Branch, for a six-month stint at FDA where instead of pitching produce sales she will devote herself to food safety issues and regulations.

The produce industry learned of this move last week, but it did not become public until a two-cabinet Secretary announcement Monday, which was plenty of assurance that Skelton knows her fruits and vegetables.

She will be “part of a cooperative initiative between FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA),” the joint press release said.

“President Obama, like most Americans, wants immediate improvements in our food safety system,” said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “As such, we are pulling together all our best resources – state and federal – to improve the safety of our foods and to work with growers [to] protect and promote the health of our nation.”

“USDA is committed to working with our partners to ensure that Americans have access to safe, healthy, and nutritious food,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.  “Today’s announcement is another example the Obama Administration’s innovative and aggressive effort to strengthen protections against unsafe food and foodborne illness.”

Through the initiative, the government statement continued, FDA is gathering information and seeking feedback from the fresh produce industry, including small and organic farmers, on the impact such rules may have on their businesses and lives.

In addition, it said, USDA and FDA officials have been traveling together to meet with farmers and local food safety officials. Most recently, FDA and USDA visited farms in North Carolina and will soon visit farms in Florida.

“We are delighted that the FDA sought USDA’s counsel and cooperation as they tackle the challenges of ensuring the safety and availability of fresh produce and healthy foods,” said AMS Administrator Rayne Pegg. “The USDA and the FDA have joined together on listening sessions and farm tours, and are eager to develop a system of regulation that will work for American families and the growers.”

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg iterated the agency’s commitment to listen and learn from all those with a role in protecting the safety of the food system.

“It is vitally important for us to hear ideas, concerns, and experiences directly from local growers around the country as we develop rules to help protect the safety of fresh produce from the farm to the table,” she said. “We will be that much more effective by working closely with farmers, our USDA partners and with state and local food safety agencies.”

The detail and the joint outreach efforts further underscore the two agencies’ commitment to work cooperatively on food safety.

The produce industry learned of the transfer at an Oct. 2 Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit workshop.

Skelton has been with the AMS for 22 years and is said to have extensive knowledge of USDA inspection activities for fresh produce, including the good agricultural practices audits the agency performs for produce grower-shippers.

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