Washington Insider -- Tuesday

Federal Safety Outlook

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

Canada Supreme Court and NAFTA 2.0 talks

The Canadian Supreme Court will release a decision April 19 that could lead to dismantling of Canada's supply management system of tariffs, quotas, and price controls that protects Canada's dairy, egg, and poultry producers.

The Supreme Court of Canada Friday said has reached a decision on the legal issue and some say it does not affect Canadian dairy, egg, or poultry policy. But Canadian supply managed producers fear it could be the beginning of the end of a system the 2018 U.S. Trade Representative's Foreign Trade Barrier Report says “limits the ability of U.S. producers to increase exports to Canada” and “inflates the prices Canadians pay for dairy and poultry products.”

The underlying case is linked to beer, but Canadian dairy and other producers were concerned enough to file a joint submission to the court that argued the impacts a ruling could have on supply management programs for those products.

CBO Releases Analysis of House Farm Bill Proposals

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) on Friday released an analysis of the House Ag Committee farm bill proposals. The estimates detail how the legislation relied on shifts in conservation and nutrition spending to fund priorities and found the House's 2018 farm bill (HR 2) would increase mandatory spending on programs by $500 million over 10 years and result in $7 million in deficit savings for the same period.

However, overall mandatory spending would increase by $3.2 billion between Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 to 2023, the life of the legislation. Costs would drop sharply over the next five years by $2.7 billion.

Washington Insider: Food Safety Outlook

Amid the usual confusion over prospects for renewing the expiring farm bill and fights with China and other trading partners this week, Bloomberg is reporting that there is both good and bad news regarding food safety.

The group cites an FDA official who believes that newer science-based enforcement tools enhance Food and Drug Administration efforts to identify and stop foodborne illness outbreaks. However, it also focused briefly on the “true prevalence of pathogens that can sicken people.”

Bloomberg’s report cited Stephen Ostroff, the FDA’s deputy commissioner, who addressed a recent food enforcement and compliance conference in Washington.

Ostroff said that newly available science is “uncovering foodborne illness that were always there, but that we didn’t always detect before.” His views reflect his responsibility for oversight of FDA’s food and animal health activities.

The FDA official also said that “the new science reveals another truth: foodborne illness isn’t going down, and it’s probably going up. At best, we’re holding the line and at worst we’re losing ground.” This in spite of FDA’s new legislative authorities.

He pointed to whole genome sequencing as an important FDA sleuthing tool because it enables investigators to quickly match bacterial DNA sampled from a sick consumer and a tainted product in multi-state outbreaks. And he noted that “dangerous bacterial pathogens like salmonella, E. coli, and listeria quickly evolve to survive.” In addition, the nature of the U.S. food supply also is evolving, making oversight more difficult, he said.

More than 90% of seafood and spices in the U.S. are imported, a factor in a recent fish-related illness outbreak in Hawaii traced to imported scallops. Increasingly popular locally sourced foods also pose potential health risks, along with new food delivery methods that give consumers convenience, he said.

“Food is being brought to us in vastly different ways than we’re used to,” and FDA’s objective is “to ensure the protection of health without stifling innovation,” Ostroff said. He emphasized the agency’s improved organizational links with states as helping deal with the evolving threats and noted that at least some of the new challenges are being met by newly-funded partnerships with health officials in 41 states.

The $10.5 million Produce Safety Network, recently funded by Congress, will enlist state agricultural officials to work with farms to ensure proper pathogen testing under the Food Safety Modernization Act, Ostroff said. The law, which took effect in 2011 and is being implemented in stages, is designed to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks instead of simply responding to them.

Ostroff expressed concern, however, that seven states have yet to agree to participate in the network: Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. “If those states don’t help, it falls to the FDA to do those inspections next year,” he said.

He also emphasized the expanding role of new enforcement tools when outbreaks do occur. These were authorized under the new food safety modernization law, he said these are meant to be used “very, very sparingly,” referring to the agency’s preference for voluntary compliance and recalls by affected companies.

He noted that as recently as April 3, FDA, for the first time, issued a mandatory recall to a company linked to an ongoing salmonella outbreak in kratom-containing products. Ostroff said that the 38-state outbreak was traced to at least 26 herbal supplement products allegedly supplied by a variety of companies in Colorado, Oregon, Nevada, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming.

One manufacturer, Las Vegas-based Triangle Pharmanaturals, LLC, allegedly balked at FDA’s repeated requests for voluntarily recall of its products, prompting the agency to order it to do so. “We dropped the hammer for the very first time last week and guess what?” Ostroff said. “It worked.”

Observers note that FDA has been criticized in the past for its reluctance to use recalls in some cases of foodborne illness. Under the new law, FDA is using a number of new approaches, including threats of criminal penalties for knowingly shipping contaminated food. Almost all of these approaches are unpopular across the industry, as USDA knows from its long experience in regulating meat packing operations.

Nonetheless, the increasing food safety threats FDA is pointing out are serious and continuing and will require increased vigilance by FDA, USDA and other food agencies—and should be watched closely by producers since food safety is critical to the maintenance of the industry’s credibility among consumers, Washington Insider believes.

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