Washington Insider -- Monday

Dangers from Fresh Spouts

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

US, South Korea Trade Negotiators Meet In Seoul Next Week

Negotiators from the U.S. and South Korea will meet this week in Seoul, a session that is to discuss potentially amending the five-year-old U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS).

President Donald Trump has said he would either renegotiate or terminate the deal, which he said has led to American job losses. South Korea's trade ministry confirmed U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer's announcement that both sides will engage in talks starting on August 22. Lighthizer and South Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong will open the talks via video conference, to be followed by senior-level talks between U.S. and Korean officials in Seoul

South Korea's trade ministry said it would maintain its stance the deal has been "mutually beneficial" and both sides should first "objectively examine, analyze and assess" the pact before attempting to make changes or amendments.

Lighthizer has said the overall deficit the U.S. has with South Korea has increased since the agreement took effect.

South Korea has maintains the two sides must first determine whether the trade deficit the U.S. holds with South Korea was caused by KORUS or other fundamental economic issues.

USTR Launches Section 301 Investigation of China Over Intellectual Property

An investigation of China's actions on technology transfer, intellectual property and innovation under Section 301 of U.S. trade law has been launched by U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer.

On Monday, President Trump instructed me to look into Chinese laws, policies, and practices which may be harming American intellectual property rights, innovation, or technology development," Lighthizer said. "After consulting with stakeholders and other government agencies, I have determined that these critical issues merit a thorough investigation. I notified the President that today I am beginning an investigation under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974."

USTR will hold a public hearing October 10 on the matter in Washington where the public will be able to testify. Those seeking to deliver comments at the session will need to submit their request by September 28.

This sets in motion a process that will take up to a year before any action would be taken against China relative to whether the country has used policies that force U.S. companies to hand over valuable technology in order to do business in China.

Washington Insider: Dangers from Fresh Sprouts

Food Safety News is reporting this week that fresh sprouts, a darling of U.S. foodies, have been under regulatory scrutiny since early 2015. It says its analysis of fresh sprouts and the companies that grow them has found “relatively low numbers in terms of some foodborne pathogens — but also low compliance rates in terms of safety measures.”

The survey was organized in response to safety threats, FDA said. “From 1996 to July 2016, there were 46 reported outbreaks of foodborne illness in the United States linked to sprouts. These outbreaks accounted for 2,474 illnesses, 187 hospitalizations, and three deaths.”

Out of 825 samples of seeds, water and finished sprouts tested recently, officials found Salmonella or Listeria contamination in only 14. None of the samples was positive for E. coli, but only finished sprouts and water were tested for that pathogen, not seeds, according to FDA.

The 14 positive samples came from eight of the 94 growing operations included in the project, and 10 of the positives came from just four growers.

In its report last week, FDA detailed the procedures used and data generated during the special “sampling assignment” that was planned to last two years. “About one year into the assignment, FDA decided to stop its collection and testing because it had already collected samples on more than one occasion from many of the sprouting operations known to the agency and its state partners,” according to the report.

The agency targeted fresh sprouts for the sampling program because “sprouts are especially vulnerable to pathogens given the warm, moist and nutrient-rich conditions needed to grow them,” according to the FDA report.

The FDA estimates that about 55 million pounds of fresh sprouts are produced annually in the United States.

During the project, FDA identified an ongoing Listeria monocytogenes outbreak that killed two people. The implicated grower stopped production and recalled product. The business ultimately closed down.

“The FDA worked with the firms that owned or released affected sprouts to conduct voluntary recalls or to have their consignees destroy affected product, and then followed up with inspections. The agency also referred its findings to state authorities in two cases,” according to the report.

While the number of contaminated samples was small, the survey revealed other problems with the industry. For example, less than half of the sprouting operations bought seeds from a supplier who obtained them from growers who followed Good Agricultural Practices and more than one in five sprouting operations did not visually examine the seeds or beans used for sprouting to check for signs of rodent intrusion, which is a key vector for pathogens. Fewer than half of the sprouting operations conducted microbiological testing of water sources used for sprout irrigation.

Only 17% of the operations test for Listeria species or Listeria monocytogenes, as now required by the Produce Safety Rule of the Food Safety Modernization Act; and only 38 percent of the operations conduct environmental monitoring for pathogens in their facilities. Numerous other technical violations were noted by FDA.

FDA now says it will continue to study microbial contamination of sprouts and how best to reduce it, according to the report. For example, in the future FDA intends to inspect sprouting operations to ensure they are complying, as applicable, with Produce Safety Rules, which includes new requirements for sprouts growers.

The agency has no plans to conduct additional large-scale sampling of sprouts at this time but may sample the commodity in accordance with its longstanding approach to food sampling, which focuses on firms that have a previous history of unmitigated microbial contamination in the environment (e.g., human illness, recalled or seized product, previous inspectional history, or environmental pathogens without proper corrective actions by the facility), or inspectional observations that warrant collection of samples for microbiological analyses.

Given the relatively low rates of compliance with safety standards for sprout production and the potential threats this implies for consumers, it is likely that food safety advocates will press FDA for higher levels of industry surveillance. The industry is modestly large and tests for contaminants are expensive, but with food safety outbreaks running in the thousands over the past decade—and many producers ignoring food safety rules, efforts to increase testing likely can be expected, Washington Insider believes.

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