Washington Insider -- Tuesday

FDA, Salmonella and Internet Recalls

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

Extension of Proposed Organic Livestock Practices Rule Urged by Lawmakers

An extension of the comment period for the proposed rule on organic livestock and poultry practices from 60 to 150 days should be granted to ensure adequate vetting of potential concerns, a letter by House and Senate Ag Committee leaders to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack urged.

"Additional time is necessary for stakeholders to evaluate the changes made in the proposed rule and provide comprehensive feedback on the potential impacts [of the rule]," the letter urged. It was signed by Senate Ag Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., along with their counterparts House Ag Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, and Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn.

"Our constituents have expressed significant concern regarding possible unintended consequences," the lawmakers said, saying the rule could result in "substantially increased organic food costs for consumers, significant disruption to the organic feed and processed organic products industries, increased exposure to disease and mortality of organic poultry, increased risk of contamination or food-borne illness and significant barriers for current organic producers to maintain organic certification."

Meanwhile, the U.S. is considering the merits of a multi-country trade agreement covering organic agriculture products, according to remarks on May 25 by chief agricultural negotiator with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative Darci Vetter to the Organic Trade Association's annual policy conference.

The U.S. wants to avoid a proliferation of differing bilateral organic equivalency agreements in which organic standards of the trading partners are granted reciprocity, and instead focus on a more unified regulatory approach, Vetter said.

The U.S. already has equivalency agreements with Canada, the European Union, Japan, Korea and Switzerland, and an agreement with Mexico is being negotiated. Chile and Peru have asked that the U.S. enter into bilateral talks with them on organic equivalency agreements, Vetter added.

The current discussions see promoting a "plurilateral" grouping -- meaning an agreement would include fewer than all the members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) -- as the best means to agree on an equivalency scheme.

USDA Extends Actively Engaged Certification Deadline

A one-time, 30-day extension of the June 1 deadline for recording farm organization structures as related to actively engaged in farming determinations has been announced by USDA.

The final rule on this established limits on the number of individuals who can qualify as actively engaged using only management. Only one payment limit for management is allowed under the rule, with the ability to request up to two additional qualifying managers operations for large and complex operations.

However, the new rules spurred by the 2014 Farm Bill do not apply to farming operations that are comprised only of family members.

In addition, those with fall-seeded crops have until the 2017 crop year to come into compliance.

The extension means those affected operations have until July 1 to finish restructuring or finalize any operational changes to comply with the new rules.

Washington Insider: FDA, Salmonella and Internet Recalls

You may be forgiven for thinking that pulling dangerous products off the market is mainly a matter of requiring sellers to pull back contaminated products from purchasers. However, the process is more complicated, Food Safety News is reporting this week and FDA seems to be struggling to know how to proceed in cases where product is sold on the internet.

The case FSN reports this week involves a company, Garden of Life, that sells "meal replacement shakes." An outbreak of salmonella was confirmed in December, 2015 and linked to the company's products. By the time CDC declared the outbreak had run its course in late April, 33 people in 23 states had been sickened. Six of them had symptoms so severe that they required hospitalization.

CDC said it was able to match the salmonella infections' strain with those found in organic Garden of Life Raw Meal shake and meal replacement powders.

The Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, company had recalled some of its organic Raw Meal products by late January and expanded that recall in mid-February. In notices on FDA's website, the company said it had "requested that retailers remove the lots of Raw Meal from sale" and offered consumer refunds. However, FSN also says that in January the company redesigned its labels and changed the word order in the product name to "Raw Organic Meal."

A key concern, FSN says, is that even as late as May some consumers were receiving the recalled product from online retailers. Specifically, "consumers have acquired recalled product from internet retailers such as eBay and Amazon," according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Officials fear that contaminated products may still be for sale on eBay, Amazon and other internet retailers.

FSN says that when it tried to follow up on the case, Amazon officials referred them to the company's product safety page. The site did not include information on specific product recalls but provided links to recall websites.

Even now, FSN says, while FDA considers whether to develop recall protocols for foods sold online, CDC officials do not plan any follow-up action. "As stated on our website, these products have a long shelf life. It is not unexpected to see additional illnesses reported after our investigation closes for outbreaks involving shelf-stable products," according to the CDC spokeswoman. "The ill person in Wisconsin reported eating a product that has already been recalled."

Neither federal nor state officials indicated whether the recent Wisconsin victims knew about the recall of the Garden of Life Raw Meal before buying or consuming it. They also did not indicate whether the online retailer had notified consumers of the recall.

"In determining whether a recall is sufficient, FDA does not have different standards for products sold online versus through traditional 'brick and mortar' retailers, though we recognize that the steps needed to ensure that product has been accounted for may differ. We are still working with Garden of Life to determine the effectiveness of their recall," the FDA spokesperson said.

Neither CDC nor FDA had added information about the new Wisconsin victim to their outbreak pages, which were last updated in late April, FNS says. However, late last week after responding to Food Safety News, FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition tweeted three reminder messages about the Raw Meal recall and salmonella outbreak on the @FDAfood Twitter account.

Because the FDA is responsible for many thousands of processors and products and has only limited surveillance resources, it has recently been attempting to dramatize a new "get tough" attitude with heavy penalties, including in some cases, fairly long prison sentences. Still, it seems to continue to approach recall situations quite timidly, much more reluctantly than USDA's meat and poultry inspectors do, observers suggest.

If there ever was a case where a clearly identified product needed to be removed from the food chain, the recent salmonella case seems to be one. For FDA and CDC to be so uncertain how to proceed seems strange. Online vendors, just like brick and mortar ones, need to follow tough safety rules—with heavy penalties for those who fail to pay attention. This is a case and an issue that is important to ag and food producers everywhere and should be watched carefully as it proceeds, Washington Insider believes.

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