As part of our ongoing expert Q&A series, a conversation with Bob Whitaker, the Produce Marketing Association’s Chief Science Officer: 

After working with Congress to get comprehensive food safety legislation in the pipeline, the Produce Marketing Association joined 19 other big produce interest groups last week to oppose S.510, a bill they’d been actively supporting, over a deal to include an amendment proposed by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) to exempt small farmers and producers under certain circumstances. (See: Politics, Small Farm Deal Stall Food Safety Bill, Nov. 19)

Food Safety News had a chance to chat with Bob Whitaker, PMA’s lead food safety expert, to discuss the group’s opposition to the Tester amendment as part of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. 

Q: I know your members include the big players in the produce industry, but does PMA have small producer members who have been concerned about the pending food safety bill?

A: We’re a global organization. PMA has over 3,000 members worldwide, so we represent the entire supply chain–that can be anybody from a small grower up to a large retailer or food service organization, and everybody in between. We have small growers, large growers, processors, transportation people, retailers, distributors, harvesters, you name it.

Q: PMA has obviously been very engaged on the food safety bill, have you been actively working with staff on the Hill to express your views to the Tester-Hagan amendment from the get go?

A: We’ve been working for quite a while now for comprehensive food safety regulations for the industry.  We were disappointed last week when the Tester amendment basically stayed intact and made exemptions possible.  It leaves holes in the system and it doesn’t do everything it could do to protect public health.

Q: Are you more worried about the economic consequences–if one small tomato grower has a problem, it could impact everyone–or do you think that the growing number of small farms is actually an increasing public health risk?

whitaker-internal.jpgA: Well, I think what we’d like to see that everybody in the system has to have a food safety program. We’ve long advocated that producers have to take responsibility for the safety of their food, that they have to perform risk-assessments, and that we ought to try to use the best science we have available to us–and the best knowledge we have on each particular commodity and crop in each region–that’s really what’s most important to us, to have that baseline across the entire supply chain for food safety.

We want to see everyone in the produce industry have access to markets and, frankly, if you don’t have a food safety program, whether Congress mandates it or not, you’re going to find yourself with limited access to markets because more and more of the buying community is demanding that you have a food safety program–something that’s written down, something you can look at, something you can actually verify.  I think we’re doing a great disservice to part of our membership, and to the industry as a whole, if we [exempt] a big block of the sector.

That’s why we’ve been so active in trying to set up training programs for smaller or regional growers around the country. You can advocate that everyone needs a program, but you need to do the other part, you’ve got to take action. We’ve partnered with some of our members to begin training programs simply so we can talk to regional growers about what it takes to put a foods safety program in place, how do you do a risk-assessment, how do you get an audit.  A lot of these things can be really daunting  … if you haven’t done it before.  But the overwhelming response we get from growers after these trainings is: ‘that’s not so hard, we can do that.’

Q: Do you think that between the trade associations and university extension programs, the infrastructure exists to provide the training necessary for small growers to get support putting food safety programs together?

A: I think there are a number of resources out there that are available to retail growers and smaller growers.  You do have the trade associations, but more important than that you have the agriculture extension services at land grant colleges, you have regional and commodity groups, so you have smaller associations that might represent Washington apples, or the leafy green growers and shippers in Salinas, or the tomatoes in Florida–many of them in one fashion or another have offered food safety training programs or educational sessions.  You also have third-party providers that can help with training programs.

About two weeks ago the FDA put a $1.2 million grant into Cornell University to take the work they’ve been doing on [Good Agricultural Practices] and spread it nationally. One of the things we try to do with our [PMA] training programs is making growers aware of these resources. There are a lot of online tutorials to help you work through personalized risk-assessments and best practices.

Q: Even with support from the resources you mentioned, it will take man hours and sometimes changing practices to comply with the new regulations, a lot of the concerns I hear from farmers are centered on cost and time … some of the very small business owners think this will put them under.  In your experience working with smaller growers, have you seen some positive transitions? Are the costs prohibitive?

A: You hear costs a lot.  One thing you have to say up front, when you look at this, is that there are a lot of very small growers who are already doing this.  I think there is plenty of evidence where growers have already made this a priority and they have been able to do so in a pretty innovative manner. There is a cost to this, there is no doubt about that. ,But it doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly expensive. A lot of this is common sense.  One thing I’ve seen many, many times: food safety practices are good business practices.  Food safety costs are scalable.  You can do a third-party verification audit for as little as a few hundred dollars.

People need to dive in and understand that this is food and you have to take responsibility for the safety of our food, to the extent that you can.

Q: What about the argument that locally sold food presents a much lower risk to consumers? If something goes wrong, it will be contained to relatively small region and to a relatively small number of consumers…

A: I look at that a couple different ways.  Number one, everybody in agriculture understands that all production is local to someplace, and all production is fairly small.  If you look at some of these larger grower-shippers, they are basically kind of accumulation points for small farmers that contribute into that grower-shipper and provide product.  I would say that the least common denominator for our industry is a small farm.  Number two, the pathogens don’t know what size farm they’re on.  If practices are roughly similar and you’re facing outdoor environments where you’re producing food that may or may not have risks associated with them, and that may, or may not, have conditions that are controllable, it does not matter what size your plot of lan
d is.

If someone gets sick, the consumer doesn’t care if it’s a small farm, a local farm, a big farm–they’ve suffered an injury.  I think that given the science that we don’t understand at this point and the very sporadic and random contamination events that we’ve seen, I don’t think we want to leave any stone unturned to make food as safe as it can be.

Q: I don’t know if you saw that Glenn Beck started talking about the food safety bill on his radio program–which has millions of viewers–and he talked about it increasing the cost of food.  I wonder if you have any thoughts about how this kind of alarmism fuels the push-back against something that the food industry actually supports…

A: I always just go back to the basic premise: We’re all consumers.  When I go to the store and I buy food, in this case produce, I expect it to be safe.  People have got to understand one thing: you have to think about the people you’re serving.  At the end of the day, we’re pursuing improved food safety so that products can be as safe as they possibly can, every time.  Consumers have to be confident that our products are safe. That is the bottom-line contract we have with our consumers.

When we see repeated recalls and positive tests, that hurts consumer confidence.  When you think about food safety costs: can we afford not to do it?  We make the healthiest, most nutritious products out there.  If you look at FDA, USDA, CDC, all they want is to increase fruit and vegetable consumption.  When we have an obesity epidemic in this country we ought to be doing everything we possibly can to have positive messaging on produce.  I weigh that against food safety costs as well.

Q: Are you confident that a compromise will be reached so that PMA can support the final version of the food safety bill?

A: I don’t know.  I think we’re all kind of waiting to see what happens on the legislative side. PMA will continue to work with the legislative side and will continue to work with the FDA–whatever legislation comes out it will be up to FDA to write the rules–and we will certainly work with them to get the most comprehensive food safety rules we can.

Note: S.510 is expected to be taken up by the Senate the evening of Nov. 29.

The conversation above has been slightly edited for length and readability.

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