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FDA, USDA, Cornell in Alliance for Produce Safety

In anticipation of the new federal regulations on fresh fruits and vegetables expected next year, Cornell University will house a public-private program aimed at providing growers and packers with the most current, science-based food risk and safety information.

Called the Produce Safety Alliance, the three-year, $1.15 million partnership is being funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) to develop training and education materials related to the new regulatory requirements.

According to the FDA’s announcement Thursday, the alliance’s key efforts will include:

— Developing a standardized education program on Good Agricultural Practices (known as GAPs)

— Creating an information bank of up-to-date scientific and technical information related to on-farm and packinghouse produce safety, environmental co-management, and eventually the FDA’s proposed produce safety rule

— Launching a website to make the alliance’s work and information readily accessible

— Establishing a network of educational collaborators

— Conducting an assessment of existing educational materials to identify inadequacies and to provide for continuous updates

— Developing and delivering training materials and sessions

Cornell has already established a track record with its existing Good Agriculture Practices program, which has given the university a reputation as a leader in getting current food-safety information out to the produce industry.

“In our 12-plus years of working with growers and packers on how best to implement GAPs, we have seen how much they want to do the right thing and meet the industry demand for food safety,” said Betsy Bihn, coordinator of the university’s National GAPs Program, in an FDA news relase.  “What growers and packers want is science-based information they can use in the fields and the packing houses to improve food safety practices in practical ways. Our goal is to meet that need today and down the road as FDA moves forward in its rulemaking process.”

FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael R. Taylor said, “We also know that small growers and packers are especially interested in the kind of hands-on training and support envisioned by the alliance.”

The alliance will include representatives from the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO), the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA), land grant universities, growers and shippers, produce trade organizations, and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, joining FDA, AMS, and Cornell officials on a steering committee.

“Whether they are large, small, or somewhere in between, what our farmers want and need is hands-on practical information, and we see the Produce Safety Alliance as a vital way to develop that information and deliver it in a timely and effective way,” said North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler, chair of NASDA’s Food Safety Committee, in the FDA statement.

The FDA’s proposed rules on the safe production, harvesting, and packing of produce are expected to be issued in 2011.

Meanwhile, voluntary and contractual produce safety standards already are employed by many producers nationwide and the alliance will take those into account in developing its materials, according to the news release.  The work of the alliance also will be based on integrating food safety and environmental protection, the FDA said.

“This effort builds on the collaborative effort we have led over the past three years to develop a model produce safety code for our members,” said AFDO President Ron Klein in the prepared statement.  “We welcome an opportunity to share what we have learned and move forward everyone’s goal of ensuring the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables.”

The FDA and USDA said they plan to issue updates on the progress and activities of the Produce Safety Alliance in coming months.

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