Washington Insider -- Monday

Food Safety News Criticizes FDA Policies

  • Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.
EPA Working on Year-Round E15

EPA is working to justify a Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) waiver that would pave the way for year-round sales of E15, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt told lawmakers last week.

The agency is "trying to ensure the legal basis is sound, because there will be litigation," Pruitt said during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing Thursday. "I intend to finish that process very soon."

But the matter boils down to potential court challenges, Pruitt observed, noting, "It is a legal determination, it is not a policy determination."

Sorghum Producers Call for End to Trade Situation

China imposing an import duty of 178.6 percent on U.S. sorghum has impacted trade flows as some cargoes of the grain destined for China have been shifted to other destinations. So far, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Spain, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines have taken some of the shipments.

National Sorghum Producers, United Sorghum Checkoff Program and the U.S. Grains Council (USGC) are working with different locations across the globe. USGC has taken the opportunity to educate other countries on feeding guides for grain sorghum.

“This tit for tat has to stop, and talks to find reasonable and lasting solutions must begin, for the good of US agriculture and the customers we have spent decades working to win as loyal buyers,” said Tom Sleight, USGC president and CEO.

Washington Insider: Food Safety News Criticizes FDA Policies

Food Safety News (FSN) emphasizes the obvious this week and proclaims that “the purpose of the Food Safety and Modernization Act is the prevention of foodborne disease”—and that the U.S. has spent billions of taxpayer dollars and thousands of years of FDA professional time since 2011 to make that so.

However, FSN suggests that FDA may be falling down on the job. “The public expects that whenever there is a severe outbreak of foodborne illness, CDC and FDA will figure out the exact source.” Still, the group says that CDC and FDA have been unable to find the specific source of the last two recent romaine-related E. coli outbreaks.

It notes that Romaine caused 25 E. coli illnesses in 15 states between Nov. 4, 2017, and Dec. 17, 2017. The same outbreak was associated with another 42 illnesses in Canada.

One outbreak caused two deaths, one each in the U.S. and Canada. Twenty-six people in the two countries required hospitalization. That problem is not related to the current romaine outbreak, according to CDC.

But, it is “another in a long list of outbreaks involving leafy greens since 1995, many unsolved,” FSN says.

CDC and FDA on Friday conducted a teleconference to announce that romaine lettuce from Harrison Farm, located outside Yuma, Ariz., caused eight of 98 confirmed E. coli cases. The Yuma growing area is the likely source of the other 90 confirmed cases, but CDC and FDA cannot yet name any additional growers. Shipping and receiving records don’t tell the whole traceability story. There are not enough dots to connect, FSN says.

The FSN continues: without more dots, we are not likely to see a romaine recall. We did not see a recall in the first romaine outbreak. By the time, CDC and FDA work from the ill person through each link in the supply chain back to the source, all the contaminated lettuce will likely be consumed.

At this point, however, the agencies cannot even confirm industry statements that no additional romaine is being harvested and shipped from the Yuma region.

The current outbreak is a severe one. No deaths yet, but more than half of those sickened have required hospitalization and ten people, including three children, have developed kidney failure.

The specific E. coli bacteria, known as “STX2 only” aggressively attacks blood vessels, kidneys, digestive system, and brain.

Restaurants do seem to be taking the outbreak seriously FSN says and many have taken certain salads off the menu until the romaine outbreak is over and they get the “all clear” sign.

After the 2006 E. coli outbreak involving bagged spinach, growers and their major retail customers came up with Leafy Green Marketing Associations for the two states. LGMA growers submit to both scheduled and announced audits by their state agriculture departments. LGMA membership has its advantages, such as being able to sell to those big retailers and cross the Canadian border without any delays. However, the LGMAs “deserve credit, but they also deserve scrutiny,” FSN thinks.

It charges that LGMAs do not seem to be systems for helping CDC and FDA name the source of an outbreak and that they should be more helpful.

In the recent rock-melon outbreak in Australia, the industry reacted in just the opposite way, demanding the government name the responsible grower, FSN says. All the other rock-melon growers did not want their brands or export prospects hurt.

FSN notes that not so long ago, a little unit called the Microbiological Data Program was run by USDA. The MDP contracted with a dozen state agricultural labs to go out and test fresh produce during the various harvest seasons to sample and test what’s coming out of the fields.

The MDP existed from 2002-2012 and became responsible for 80% of the fresh produce testing in the U.S., FSN says and cost only about $5 million. The New York Times called it “a tiny program that matters.” But the produce industry hated it and apparently had a significant hand in killing it, FSN thinks. A positive MDP test could “throw a wrench in the salad bowl,” and MDP did not have “predictive value,” according to the rap on it, FSN says.

But MDP scored some wins for consumers. It caught a rare strain of hepatitis A, preventing its entry into the U.S. from the Middle East and North Africa; and it kept a nasty parasite in Mexico from crossing into the US. MDP was good at creating data on surges of fresh fruits and vegetables, either at harvest time or as from imports.

FDA also tests fresh produce. It did about 20% of the testing back when MDP did 80%. But FSN says it doubts that FDA has come anywhere close to making up for MDP’s demise. When leafy green outbreaks occur now, our federal experts go into the field thin on data. And, FSN asserts that the “romaine outbreak is very severe.” It’s the second to occur the 2017-18 growing season. The first was deadly. No recalls have occurred. Progress is slow.

The LGMAs may require reform to be more useful during outbreaks. And the public is missing the testing MDP contributed to food safety for a full decade, FSN argues.

Well, FSN has a unique window on this food threat, and its scathing review of the current federal program’s effectiveness is being watched closely in dozens of urban media. Because lettuce is largely consumed raw, the general food safety protections from careful cooking do not work and special attention, and, likely testing, is required.

The current situation threatens the safety credibility of much of the food system, so the implementation of a more effective system is essential and should be watched closely by producers as this debate continues, Washington Insider believes.

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