Washington Insider -- Friday

Pressure Builds Over E coli Outbreak

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

Farm Bill Vote Slated for Next Week in House

Lawmakers must file amendments on the House Ag Committee version of the farm bill Friday.

While the date has not been set for House action, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said it would be considered next week. Several amendments if allowed and passed by the House would doom the measure, especially one regarding the sugar program filed by Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who said she will vote for the underling bill.

That would get over a hurdle that House Ag Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Tex., wants, if the Rules panel backs him, that would only allow amendments to be debated if the lawmaker promises to vote for the bill on final passage.

Foxx is pushing the Sugar Policy Modernization Act. It would lift limits on domestic production, allow the ag secretary to adjust import quotas during the year and end government-backed, non-recourse loans for sugar growers, which are also available to other commodities.

Ryan Signals May 17 Deadline to Assure 2018 NAFTA 2.0 Vote

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the Trump administration has until May 17 to submit a final NAFTA deal if it wants lawmakers to vote on the revised agreement this year.

The Trade Promotion Authority (TPA/fast-track) law provides for “fast-tracking” passage of a trade agreement negotiated by the administration by putting the deal to an up-or-down vote without amendment. The bill details several negotiating objectives required by Congress and mandates that the deal be notified to Congress 90 calendar days before the executive branch signs the agreement.

“As the author of TPA, we have to have the paper -- not just an agreement. We have to have the paper from USTR [U.S. Trade Representative] by May 17 for us to vote on it this year, in December, in the lame duck,” Ryan said at an event hosted by the Ripon Society.

Washington Insider: Pressure Builds Over E coli Outbreak

Reports about the ongoing E. coli outbreak seem to be getting grimmer. For example, Food Safety News said that eight weeks after the first person became sick, government inspectors still haven’t been able to pinpoint who grew and distributed pre-chopped romaine lettuce associated with a deadly and ongoing E. coli outbreak -- and now the industry and FDA are squabbling about the cause of the delays.

Some in the fresh produce industry are blaming the FDA, saying the government hasn’t taken advantage of assistance the industry has offered.

However, the FDA and state officials push back and argue that records are poor, often hand-written and lacking in uniformity. Incomplete shipping and receiving records are slowing the investigation, the officials said.

The debate is bitter. Jennifer McEntire, United Fresh Produce Association vice president of food safety, called the FDA’s investigation “mystifying.” She claimed that the allied associations and members have provided information about processing and handling as well as product shipment data.

In an update earlier this week, FDA investigators said that the only solid new information FDA has gleaned is that eight inmates in an Alaskan prison were sickened by whole-head romaine from Harrison Farms in Yuma. Almost all of the other outbreak victims reported eating chopped romaine before they became sick. Many victims had eaten the romaine in restaurant salads.

So, the casualties of the outbreak continue to mount, and the seriousness of their illness continues to grow. FSN said that of those for whom complete information is available, 52 have required hospitalization. Fourteen, including several children, have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As it navigates a web of growers and cross-continental distribution channels, the FDA is continuing its warning to consumers, restaurants, and retailers about romaine lettuce from the Yuma area. FDA also is encouraging people to avoid romaine unless they can confirm it is not from the Yuma area.

And, FSN is casting doubt on the effectiveness of the FDA warnings. It notes, “since the CDC and FDA first reported the link between romaine and the E. coli O157: H7 outbreak on April 13, officials at United Fresh, as well as the Produce Marketing Association and the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement organizations for California and Arizona, have been saying the harvest season in Yuma was “wrapping up.” Now, FSN is increasingly critical of federal agency reporting and suggests that the problems investigators are encountering currently aren’t anything new, and that the need for traceability during outbreaks and recalls was one of the issues that prompted Congress to approve the new 2011 Act in the first place.

However, it said the process has been slowed by multiple public comment periods and multiple revisions, especially to the crucial Produce Rule and that “in the process of developing rules mandated by the 2011 Act, government agencies haven’t been able to meet the intent of the law, in no small part to industry pushback.”

FSN opined that those types of “stumbling blocks” to preventive controls are frustrating both public servants and food safety advocates. Seattle food safety attorney Bill Marler said he has been “pushing for the food industry to step up” since the deadly 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak.

“It’s 2018, and we’re basically a month into this outbreak, and they can’t link it to a farmer or a farm or a processor? I mean, candidly, that’s ridiculous,” Marler recently told the Washington Post. “They’re now 12 years post-spinach, and traceability was supposed to be one of the big things that came out of that disaster. And it just doesn’t seem to be getting there.” Marler said he doesn’t understand why FSMA hasn’t made a bigger difference. He adds that the technology exists, but the industry hasn’t upgraded.

“I think one of the flaws in the law is that traceability was expected to roll out a little quicker, and that’s probably what the main problem is here, the ability for the FDA and state health authorities to be able to pinpoint where the outbreak happened is just not there,” Marler said.

“The technology exists, but we are really going to have to relook at the legal requirements -- that producers have a much stronger ability to be able to know what product is being used when -- so there’s no ambiguity, and we can get to the cause of the outbreak much faster.”

It is hard to measure the cost to the food industry from the loss of credibility from dangerous outbreaks like this one, especially since it calls into question the effectiveness of the 2011 law before it is even fully in operation.

Clearly, better food safety will cost more, and may interfere with industry operations more. But, the industry may pay even greater costs from a continuation of nationwide outbreaks of food-borne illness outbreaks. The debate over next steps in food safety is tough and intense and is already underway. Producers should watch the process closely as it proceeds, Washington Insider believes.

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