Washington Insider -- Monday

FDA Struggles with Tainted Foods

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

Dairy Industry Sounds Alarm on Trump's Immigration Plans

The effect on the U.S. dairy industry of immigration plans currently laid out by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump could be severe, according to dairy farmers and industry groups. A dairy industry-sponsored study found immigrant labor plays a key part in U.S. dairy operations. Link to study.

Milk operations function year-round, unlike the seasonality seen of some other types of farms. This means short-term guest worker programs can't adequately meet immigrant labor needs for dairy. Farmers are having difficulty hiring local labor, even with pay starting at $11 an hour or more, and with benefits that include a 401(k), many in the industry say.

"It's hard to get people that want to come out and do this type of work," Mark Diederichs, general manager of a Wisconsin dairy, told Bloomberg BNA.

Dairies would close, milk production would drop and milk prices could nearly double if immigrant labor dries up, according to a survey by researchers at Texas A&M University commissioned by the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF).

The study found:

Immigrant labor accounts for 51% of all dairy labor, and dairies that employ immigrant labor produce 79% of the US milk supply.

Dairy farm workers are paid an average wage of $11.54 per hour, and with non-wage benefits included, an annual equivalent compensation of $34,443. Dairy farms that hire immigrant labor pay higher average wages than farms that do not hire immigrants.

Dairy farms employed an estimated 150,418 workers in 2013. An estimated 76,968, or 51% of those are immigrants.

Eliminating immigrant labor would reduce the US dairy herd by 2.1 million cows, milk production by 48.4 billion pounds and the number of farms by 7,011. Retail milk prices would increase by an estimated 90.4%.

Eliminating immigrant labor on dairy farms would reduce US economic output by $32.1 billion and reduce employment by 208,208 jobs.

Approximately 64% of the losses would occur in input supply sectors and services provided to US dairy farms.

House Committees Probe EPA Glyphosate Study Release

The release, and then removal in May, of several documents regarding the Environmental Protection Agency Cancer Assessment Review Committee's (CARC) report on the pesticide glyphosate has drawn questions from lawmakers on several House committees about the agency's motives for delay, and involvement in, a World Health Organization (WHO) report on the topic with different findings.

The lawmakers on multiple House committees have asked EPA why an internal report that found the widely used weed killer glyphosate probably doesn't cause cancer was taken offline after the agency briefly posted it.

Questions are being directed at senior EPA leadership and career EPA employees, who are being summoned to congressional offices for on-the-record interviews.

When it released and then removed the glyphosate documents, EPA said it and other documents were posted inadvertently and were not final. Critics noted that the title page and every subsequent page of the report is marked with the word "FINAL."

Late in 2015, EPA signaled that it wanted to release the CARC glyphosate report this spring. However, the chemical is no longer listed on EPA's review schedule for the remainder of this fiscal year.

"EPA's removal of this report and the subsequent backtracking on its finality raises questions about the agency's motivation in providing a fair assessment of glyphosate," House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, wrote in a May 4 letter to EPA. In that letter Smith requests copies of "documents and communications" relating to the CARC report on glyphosate.

Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Ag Committee asked EPA questions about the release of the glyphosate report on May 11, and what happened to the files taken back offline.

On June 7, Smith sent another letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. In the letter, he asks for "transcribed interviews" with four EPA employees who were involved in a World Health Organization (WHO) report on glyphosate, which concluded that glyphosate was a probable carcinogen.

Washington Insider: FDA Struggles with Tainted Foods

The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for safety oversight of the vast bulk of the nation's food supply, an increasingly tough challenge especially as food consumption has shifted to include more fresh products as well as imported foods. As a result, the agency has come under heavy fire recently after large scale outbreaks of food borne illnesses.

Four years ago, Congress passed a new, food safety law that gives FDA much broader authorities, including authority to order recalls in cases where bad food can cause serious harm. Last week, the Washington Post reported that "these powers have rarely been used," and it reported two dramatic cases of slow recall efforts.

The Post noted that in one case, FDA did not force a recall of tainted peanut butter that caused salmonella poisoning of 14 people until 165 days after the contamination was found. That case was reported by the agency's own "watchdog" in a report released Thursday. The Post also reported "a similarly alarming case," in which it took the government 81 days to recall a variety of cheese products made by a Virginia firm after eight people had fallen ill from a bacteria in the food and a baby died.

The report concluded that "this lax approach to food safety has put consumers at risk of illness or death" after testing showed the food was potentially hazardous. The report was prepared by investigators for Inspector General Daniel Levinson at the Department of Health and Human Services, the FDA's parent agency. The conclusions came in what the Washington Post called "a rare urgent warning." It called the issue a "significant matter" that "requires FDA's immediate attention," the Post said.

The report blamed loose or nonexistent policies for how and when the FDA implements recalls when commercial food has made people sick. And it noted that despite the new powers the agency got in 2011 to force companies to recall dangerous products, rather than ask them to act voluntarily, and new technology that allows scientists to identify pathogens faster, the government is still "endangering the public by dragging out its investigations."

"FDA did not have an efficient and effective food recall initiation process that helps insure the safety of the Nation's food supply," said the short, but alarming report. "FDA's policies and procedures did not instruct its recall staff to prescribe to the firms a time and a manner in which to initiate the voluntary recall."

The agency did not seem happy with the Post's report. Its leading food safety official told the Associated Press that the cases investigators found were "outliers" and a "very selective example" of recalls that did not move forward more quickly. Nevertheless, the official, Deputy Commissioner Stephen Ostroff, said the agency has started a more rigorous review process for food recalls that seem to be moving too slowly.

And, it looks like it is proposing to take a tougher stand. The "more rigorous reviews" are expected to allow the agency to take action much more quickly in circumstances where there seems to be some reluctance at the firm," Ostroff told the A.P.

The cases the Post reported concerning nut butter and cheese cases occurred in 2014 and were part of an ongoing review by investigators of 30 recalls from 2012 to 2015, Ostroff said. In the first case, nSpired Natural Foods Inc. voluntarily recalled tainted peanut and almond butters, but that occurred 165 days after the FDA first found salmonella in samples from one of the company's plants. But the butters were not pulled from the market for three more months, investigators found.

In the second case, Oasis Brands Inc. recalled several tainted cheese products in 2014 almost three months after the state agriculture department in Virginia told the FDA that it had discovered listeria in food samples.

FDA sent investigators to the company's manufacturing plant for further testing twice during the 81-day delay, and found contamination both times.

Well, it will be important to hear what FDA eventually decides to do to beef up its responses to food borne illnesses. It is to be hoped that that these cases are outliers, as the agency says, and that it develops much more effective policies and procedures to use for the next cases of food contamination, and does so quickly.

In addition, it is to be hoped that FDA is investigating just how those contaminations occurred, and what policies the firms involved are bringing on board to provide better quality assurance. That could possibly include the use of the eye-opening penalties now authorized where justified to insure that food companies far and wide take good care that safety receives the priority it deserves, Washington Insider believes.

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