Washington Insider-- Monday

A New Food Safety Scandal

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

Taiwan Pig Farmers Threaten Protest Over Possible Lifting of Ractopamine Ban

Taiwanese agriculture representatives this week threatened to stage a large-scale protest if the country lifts its ban on imports of pork from hogs given the feed additive ractopamine, according to the National Pork Producers Council.

The threat was prompted by Taiwan Agriculture Minister-designate Tsao Chi-hung’s statement last week that Taiwan “cannot shut its doors to US pork containing ractopamine forever in the face of globalization,” noting that Japan and South Korea now allow ractopamine imports.

Taiwan’s new president, Tsai Ing-wen, previously indicated she wants the island nation to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership and that the country must resolve issues related to imports of US pork products, including its ban on ractopamine.

NPPC has been pressing the Obama administration to urge Taiwan to lift the ban, which the group said is not based on science. Ractopamine, which NPPC said is widely used as part of a healthy, balanced diet to help pigs convert dietary nutrients into lean muscle, was determined to be safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is approved for use in pork production in 26 countries, with 75 additional nations allowing the importation of pork from hogs fed ractopamine.

In July 2012, the UN’s Codex Alimentarius, which sets international standards for food safety, approved a maximum residue limit for ractopamine, which US pork meets.


More US Scrutiny Ahead for China's Food Exports

Chinese food exporters will face more frequent audits, inspections and requests for information under FDA rules being developed to assure food imported to the U.S. is safe.

FDA officials met recently with their Chinese counterparts to educate them on new regulations being drawn up under the US Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Chinese officials also updated the US side on new rules in China that take aim at the country's notorious food-safety problems.

“This visit really comes at a very critical point with respect to the FSMA,” Stephen Ostroff, until recently the acting FDA commissioner, said at a news conference in Beijing.

Noting much of the responsibility is going to be on importers to make sure foods meet U.S. standards, Ostroff said officials on the Chinese side understand they also must clean up their act. “In China we have a very good collaborative working relationship with our partners in food safety. We have every reason to believe they are just as serious as we are,” Ostroff said, noting that China has improved and continues to build up its food-safety systems.

China's national legislature passed a major food-safety law last year, which took effect Oct. 1. It strengthened provisions on manufacturing, storage, distribution and food materials, established a tracing system and increased punishments for violations, among other things.

Washington Insider: A New Food Safety Scandal

There has been a lot of press recently about food safety problems, and the programs responsible for avoiding outbreaks of food borne illnesses. For example, Food Safety News reported last week on some details of an ongoing investigation of Dole Food Co. for knowingly producing and shipping salads from a contaminated facility.

FSN says that reactions to its reports have varied from criticism of the FDA to an admission by Dole’s management that the company is being investigated by the Justice Department.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee responsible for funding the Food and Drug Administration, told FSN that Dole’s continued operation of the plant was “an outrage,” and noted that “Four people died from these contaminated salads, and dozens more were sickened and hospitalized, because executives at Dole put the company’s profits over public health. These executives must be held accountable for their unconscionable actions,” DeLauro said.

Earlier last week Dole declined to provide details about what had been done to clean the Springfield, Ohio, salad facility that outbreak investigators in the U.S. and Canada linked to Listeria monocytogenes victims via DNA fingerprinting of the pathogen, FSN said.

Thirty-three people have been confirmed as having infections from the same strain of Listeria monocytogenes as was found in bagged salads in Ohio and Canada from Dole’s facility in Ohio. FDA inspectors also found the outbreak strain on equipment, non-food contact surfaces, in romaine lettuce being processed at the plant and in finished salad products, FSN said.

A key charge is that Dole knew about the problem, but continued to ship. FSN cites FDA documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request that showed Dole officials knew of Listeria in the facility since at least July 2014. “The company did not close the Ohio plant until Jan. 21 this year, several days after FDA inspectors showed up,” FSN reported.

“Dole’s failure to stop shipping products and clean up its plant before the outbreak showed a total disregard for its customers’ health,” David Plunkett, senior food safety attorney for the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest told FSN. Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch in Washington, D.C., called for a “robust government inspection system with effective enforcement.”

A key concern is what is to be done about the safety lapses. The contrast is often made between USDA’s intense meat and poultry inspection for the fairly modest number of facilities it is responsible for and the FDA approach to the very large number of operations and differing legal authorities it uses, even under its new law. As a result, it says it has little alternative than to rely heavily on the industry to police itself, under FDA supervision.

Now, a number of food safety advocates are arguing that the FDA approach is not working and that there are no substitutes for an independent government inspection program.

FDA has new authority now, and it betting that its enforcement program will be able follow up on food borne illness outbreaks and bring Justice Department investigations and sentences sufficient to remove any incentive to cheat. The principal Department of Justice deputy assistant attorney general Benjamin Mizer told the Consumer Federation of America last week that the Department will “hold accountable those in the food industry who violate the public trust.”

He recounted recent examples of active prosecution and long sentences for violations of food safety rules, and argued that these “create incentives for good behavior and deter misconduct. They empower those within an organization who see unsafe practices to speak out. They help to educate the industry…In short, aggressive enforcement of the [new law] helps to ensure that making safe food is not only the best ethical and moral decision, but also the best business decision.”

Still, safety advocates are skeptical. First, they note that the number of companies currently being investigated and charged with food safety violations is still large, suggesting that the new law’s deterrence is less than complete. Second, they argue that the new law is far from fully funded—that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) thought FDA would need an increase of more than $580 million to fund the expanded food safety activities. The agency has received about half of that so far.

In the current tight budget circumstances, massive funding increases for FDA seem unlikely—so FDA’s policy of deterrence by imposing long sentences will continue to be used, and likely will continue to be tested frequently.

Certainly, outbreaks of food borne illnesses are terrible for the food industry and cases where outright failure to prevent such outbreaks occur, they should be prosecuted quickly with severe penalties imposed. At the same time, the debate over the policy itself is likely to continue and should be watched closely by producers as these important cases proceed, Washington Insider believes.

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