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At the IAFP departure lounge: Remembering all we’ve learned

The day after the 2017 International Association for Food Protection always leaves attendees headed home with not only complete lessons, but also those “bits and pieces.” Attendees at final event, the awards banquet, spoke about it over their roasted flat iron steak and creme brûlée cheesecake.

The problem with the IAFP conference is it is just not possible to take it all in.

Attendees spoke of their strategies for being in two or more places at once in their attempts at getting more. Trying to listen to the first speaker in one conference room and then moving swiftly to another for that session’s second and third speakers takes skill and luck. It’s not always successful.

That’s why everyone leaves IAFP with “bits and pieces” from sessions that were partially heard.

For example, on Monday there was an excellent session on food safety issues in Latin America where Dr. Bernadette Franco, a food safety professor at the Food Research Center (FoRC) at the University of Sao Paulo suggested Brazil’s “weak flesh” meat scandal really did not have that much to do with food safety once all the misunderstandings were cleared up. A report that cardboard was in shipped meat, for example, actually meant the meat was shipped in cardboard cartons.

She was not detracting from the seriousness of bribery or financial crisis, just showing how true meanings can and do sometimes get loss in translation. But it’s also evidence that it might not take as long for Brazil to right its ship as we previously thought.

Among the other bits and pieces this week, attendees learned that South American countries export a wide variety of foods to the U.S., including fresh fruits, salmon, beef, wine and coffee. The U.S. imported a whopping $18.5 billion worth of agricultural and fish products from South America in 2014, according to U.S. Census Bureau trade data compiled by USDA. The World Trade Organization reported that South and Central America exported a combined US$ 217 billion in agricultural products in 2013.

You are left thinking about what more foreign food is going to mean as you move next door to hear discussions about pathogen reductions being achieved at the retail level.

IAFP’s roundtables are great for listening for a spell and then moving on. There were multiple sessions this year dealing with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) compliance. Among all the enforcement mechanisms, it seems the Produce Rule is causing the most anxiety. The compliance date for large producers is January 2018. All totaled, FDA estimates more than 37,000 U.S. growers, and foreign growers exporting to the U.S., will be covered by the rule. It could be more as farms either accept voluntary adoption or fall under foreign buyer requirements.

A roundtable titled “The Devil is in the Details” about early implementation of the FSMA Produce Safety rule and efforts to fill the information gaps was interesting, sometimes for what was not be said directly. On the panel were some of the top university experts who work with the nation’s produce industry including Michelle D. Danyluk of the University of Florida, James Rushing of the University of Maryland, Don Stoeckel of Cornell University, and Trevor Suslow of the University of California-Davis.

Along with Bob Ehart from the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) and Jennifer Mcentire with the produce industry’s United Fresh trade group, these are the people who’ve done the most to get growers ready. They seemed to be saying the good news is that the largest production growers have sought out training and are reasonably up to speed. But for the vast amount of small growers, who make up much of the nation’s produce industry, not so much.

And then, reading between the lines, it sounded like they were saying their universities might not in the long run see FSMA training as important as FDA does. At this point, Congress has made money for implementation and training available, much of it through NASDA.

Back on the ground, the problem is none of these experts have yet seen the instructions or training that FDA will put inspectors through so they might be able to tell growers what to expect.

“Think about what you are doing and make good decisions,” said Cornell’s Stoeckel.

Among the other unknowns, FDA is reviewing the water quality section of the Produce Rule and there’s not yet been any training for foreign growers who export to the U.S.

“It’s a new activity for all of us,” said NASDA’s Ehart. He said the positives so far have been FDA asking for NASDA’s help and Congress being generous in the early implementation funding.

Bits and pieces, along with the certainty that there will be more FSMA implementation sessions at next year’s IAFP, and probably several more after that.

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