Washington Insider -- Tuesday

More Food Safety Challenges

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

RFS Reset Plan from EPA Still Not Coming Soon

The notice of proposed rulemaking for the reset of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) is still a ways off as there are now additional meetings scheduled on the topic at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) which is currently reviewing the EPA proposal on the topic.

So far, a total of nine meetings have been held or will be held at OMB on the reset plan. Sessions this week included one Monday with representatives of the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas. A meeting will take place Wednesday with a representative of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) and a session Friday is on tap with PBF Energy.

Two meetings are now scheduled for July 22 – one with representatives from Fuels America and one with the National Biodiesel Board (NBB).

EPA's proposed RFS levels for 2020 biofuel and 2021 biodiesel have only a small increase in cellulosic and advanced biofuel for 2020. That indicates the agency has likely proposed similar incremental increases for 2021 and 2022, the years covered by the reset plan.

US, EU Beef Trade Accord Expected Soon

European Union (EU) countries Monday approved the agreement reached last month between the EU and U.S. that would give the U.S. a larger share of the 45,000-tonne hormone-free beef tariff rate quota (TRQ) into the EU. The two trading partners expect tosign the measure “at the earliest possible date.”

The agreement will see the U.S. share of the import quota rise to 35,000 tonnes over seven years.

"The TRQ will continue to cover only products complying with EU's high food safety and health standards," the EU Council said in a release.

The agreement between the two needed other hormone-free beef suppliers to the EU to okay the increase in the level reserved for the U.S.

The hormone-free beef TRQ was established in the wake of the U.S. winning several WTO challenges on the EU ban on imports of beef produced with growth hormones.

The situation has its roots in the late-1980s when the EU first banned imports of beef produced with growth hormones.

More Food Safety Challenges

Roll Call is reporting this week that the recent papaya salmonella outbreak highlights FDA’s food safety challenges. The report said that the “law from nearly a decade ago meant to modernize the food safety system is starting to show its age.”

The report noted that FDA is struggling to track and prevent outbreaks in line with the technology now at its disposal. Because spending for next year is uncertain Congress could make such updating difficult for the agency, the report said.

Already this year, the government shutdown delayed most food safety inspections -- and during the four months when the agency was under a continuing resolution, trying to launch new programs was much harder.

The papaya outbreak is the latest instance of the FDA using a “blanket warning” against an entire industry because officials are unsure where the problem originated. A similar approach was used before Thanksgiving last year when the government warned against eating romaine lettuce. In both cases, it took a week before consumers got more specific guidance on what brands or origins to avoid.

Frank Yiannas, the head of the FDA’s food safety programs, described the inability to track and trace foods with speed or precision as the agency’s “Achilles’ heel.” Part of the problem is that while genomic sequencing makes it easier than ever to identify and link disparate sicknesses to one outbreak, the infrastructure that would help trace the outbreak to its original source hasn’t been fully developed.

The FDA in April announced a blueprint to modernize the system by looking at ways to increase the use of digital technology in the supply chain. The agency also wants to learn how to better apply artificial intelligence to screenings of imported foods at ports and border crossings and assess how to handle concerns about the rapidly expanding e-commerce food delivery system.

In short, the food and technology landscape poses new challenges that it did not face when Congress wrote the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2010.

When the papaya outbreak was originally announced June 28, the FDA’s information about a source was vague, and only at the country level. More details eventually came out July 5, when the CDC identified the brand, Cavi, and the distributor that were the likely culprits in the illnesses of 71 people across eight states. The FDA then urged consumers nationwide to avoid the brand.

Yiannas wants to update the system so tracebacks can be done in seconds, rather than the days or weeks it currently takes now. Smaller producers may only keep paper records. So, when it’s necessary to trace back a contaminated item, particularly produce or an ingredient in a processed food, piecing the steps together is a slow process.

Helping producers shift to digital forms of tracking technologies, like blockchain, could help pinpoint outbreak sources more quickly and eliminate the need for blanket warnings, Yiannas said. The agency hopes lawmakers provide additional funding to back its goals.

“While in today’s systems those broad consumer advisories are absolutely the right thing to do, with better track and trace they wouldn’t have to be so broad and overly prescriptive,” Yiannas said.

Congress also faces “funding fatigue” after boosting food safety resources from around $700 million in 2009 to nearly $1.1 billion today. While most of the new rules that the FDA was supposed to implement after the law’s passage are in place, it wasn’t until this year that the FDA and states began sending inspectors to produce-growing farms. Rules about standards for agricultural water were delayed in 2017 and won’t be in effect for the largest farms until 2022.

Lawmakers are aware of the gaps in traceability, Roll Call says, but notes that additional funds were not specifically allocated in the House spending bill, in spite of the agency request for a $52 million overall boost for foods, including $13.3 million to improve the response to outbreaks.

Food safety is expensive, especially as an increasing share of food is now eaten raw and as imports increase in importance. At the same time, some observers suggest that FDA has been “timid” in its use of its authority to define and pull back dangerous products. Clearly, an effective, credible food safety oversight program is essential to the sector’s image and should receive a high priority in the annual competition for resources -- and that process should be watched closely by producers as it proceeds, Washington Insider believes.

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