Washington Insider -- Tuesday

Romaine Lettuce Safety

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

Mexican trucks could be impacted by updated NAFTA

The U.S. could stymie Mexican trucks providing long-haul trucking services beyond U.S. border commercial zones via annex language attached to the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

The annex says the US "reserves the right" to limit "grants of authority for persons of Mexico to provide cross-border long-haul truck services" outside U.S. border commercial zones, if those limitations "are required to address material harm or the threat of material harm to U.S. suppliers, operators, or drivers."

Under the provision, "material harm" means a significant loss in the share of the U.S. market for U.S.-owned long-haul truck companies "caused by or attributable to persons of Mexico." The provision was pushed by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which had worked for over 20 years to block NAFTA cross-border trucking provisions.

The U.S. pork industry is closely watching the Mexican trucking situation as it could be impacted by the provision. The fear is that Mexico could continue its tariffs on U.S. pork products even when the Trump administration lifts metal tariffs on the country.

Ag Groups Seek Delay for New Rules Affecting Livestock Hauling

A five-year exemption from certain Hours of Service (HOS) requirements for livestock haulers, along with flexibility related to new fatigue-management practices, was requested in a petition submitted by US farm and commodity organizations to the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

Current rules limit haulers to a drive time to 11 hours daily and limit total on-duty hours to 14. The groups asked FMCSA to instead allow haulers to drive up to 15 hours with a 16-hour on-duty period – following a 10-hour consecutive rest period. The petition proposes that any livestock hauler seeking operate under the extended drive time be required to complete pre-trip planning and increased fatigue-management training.

“We are concerned that the 11- and 14-hour rules were not drafted with livestock haulers in mind and thus do not accommodate the unique character of their loads and nature of their trips,” the organizations wrote.

They argued the current rules, as written, “Place the well-being of livestock at risk during transport and impose significant burdens on livestock haulers, particularly in rural communities across the country.”

The petition was signed by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), Livestock Marketing Association (LMA), American Beekeeping Federation (ABF), American Honey Producers Association (AHPA) and the National Aquaculture Association (NAA).

Washington Insider: Romaine Lettuce Safety

Amid growing concerns about possible tougher rules on imports from China, Bloomberg reported recently about new possible food safety threat. Last year, contaminated romaine lettuce from Arizona was thought to have sickened at least 210 and killed five.

Now, although FDA still hasn’t found the source of that outbreak, this year’s crop is going into the ground in Yuma — and the report says that little has been done to protect these plantings from waste-related contaminants produced by large, nearby animal production facilities, according to “food safety lawyers.” The report focuses on Yuma, Arizona, the nation’s winter salad bowl that produces more than 90 percent of all leafy winter greens in the U.S.

The cattle facility involved is a very large operation suspected by some as threatening the potential safety of the new romaine crop.

“Everybody takes this seriously,” Michael Taylor, co-chair of Chicago-based Stop Foodborne Illness, a public health organization, told Bloomberg. “The question is what we do about it," he said. Taylor is a former FDA deputy commissioner and administrator at the Department of Agriculture.

Last year, the concentrated animal feeding operation near Yuma changed hands and became part of the Five Rivers Cattle Feeders, which now claims to be “the largest cattle feeding operation in the world,” with 11 animal feed yards spread across Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

The Five Rivers firm disputes that its operations have been linked to the Yuma outbreak and says it uses a state-approved facility design to protect the environment from animal waste.

The FDA told Bloomberg it is still “finishing up the investigation into the outbreak.” But it also said earlier that the same strain of bacteria in the outbreak was found in the canal close to the cattle operation and that there is “a clustering of romaine farms nearby.”

Food safety advocates aren’t waiting for the agency’s final report, expected to be released later this month. Taylor emphasized that a “CAFO’s location directly above farm land is clearly a hazard that must be considered by farmers, federal and local regulators, and livestock operators.”

Food safety lawyer William Marler, who filed personal injury suits over last year’s outbreak, cautions that retailers should “think seriously” about buying romaine from Yuma. “If another outbreak occurs, and a Walmart or Kroger sold romaine from Yuma that got somebody sick, I’d be asking what was done to prevent it. The answer is ‘not much.’”

Yuma lettuce farmers have stiffened safety standards including mandatory environmental assessments and wider buffers between farms and animal production operations. Still, it remains to be seen whether the new self-imposed precautions stop will be effective or that the source of last year’s outbreak will ever be determined, Bloomberg said.

Walmart Inc., which joined other major grocers in pulling chopped Yuma-originated romaine from its shelves last spring, just announced that its leafy green suppliers must use blockchain digital technology that offers real-time, shared traceability of products as they move through the supply chain.

Those efforts are laudable and could help trace the source of outbreaks but do little to prevent them, Bloomberg said.

Whether the tie-in to waste from animal operations is eventually established or not, and in spite of Walmart’s new block-chain rules, food safety advocates and lawyers are sounding the alarm about the dangers of foodborne illness outbreaks from lettuce and other leafy greens, Bloomberg noted.

Leafy greens have been associated with more than 3,600 illness outbreaks in the U.S. since 1995, according to Centers for Disease Control data.

Any link between feedlot waste and the Yuma outbreak “implicates” the main purpose of the Food Safety Modernization Act, a federal law that shifts the focus toward preventing, rather than responding to, foodborne illness outbreaks, Bloomberg says.

That rule, originally slated to take effect in 2015, has been put off until at least 2022 for large farms and even later for smaller growers. The rule is intended for the first time to apply “science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption,” including testing of water for dangerous microbes, according to FDA.

Walmart’s blockchain plan requires that growers and distributors agree to provide real-time, shared “blocks” of information. Accountability is built-in because alteration of any block is transparent and stops any proposed changes that could impact food safety until all players in the food “train” agree to it, the company says.

Still, in spite of the FDA’s new law and Walmart’s new technology, it is not clear just how leafy greens can be efficiently protected from contamination since they are generally consumed raw. USDA once used a series of designed samples to test the quality of the general crop. And, maybe the block chain monitoring will help significantly. In the meantime, pressure on the FDA to “do something quickly” is expected to grow as the safety threat menaces producers and consumers alike, a development producers should watch closely as this debate continues, Washington Insider believes.

Want to keep up with events in Washington and elsewhere throughout the day? See DTN Top Stories, our frequently updated summary of news developments of interest to producers. You can find DTN Top Stories in DTN Ag News, which is on the Main Menu on classic DTN products and on the News and Analysis Menu of DTN’s Professional and Producer products. DTN Top Stories is also on the home page and news home page of online.dtn.com. Subscribers of MyDTN.com should check out the US Ag Policy, US Farm Bill and DTN Ag News sections on their News Homepage.

If you have questions for DTN Washington Insider, please email edit@dtn.com