Washington Insider -- Monday

Controversy Over Food Illnesses and Recalls

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

No US-China Trade Deal Yet, But Finish Line May Be In Weeks

President Donald Trump did not announce a trade deal has been reached with China when he met with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He at the White House Thursday, but signaled one could be in hand in about four weeks.

"We will probably know over the next four weeks. It is looking very good," Trump said. "We have negotiated out some of the toughest — really, the tougher points. But we have some ways to go and I think we have a very good chance of getting there." Trump also mentioned the four-week period in remarks before meeting with Liu, a figure that U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer confirmed. Trump indicated it could take another two weeks to finalize text once an agreement is reached.

As for a potential summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump said, "If we have a deal, there will be a summit." Xinhua reported that Xi sent a message to Trump talking about substantial progress having been made.

Indications are the drafts of the deal currently would give China until 2025 to meet some commitments – primarily purchases of US commodities and opening the ability of U.S. companies to buy Chinese firms. Other provisions in the pact reportedly would have a 2029 deadline. Lighthizer made clear there are still issues remaining. There are “major, major issues left,” he said. “We are certainly making more progress than we would have thought when we started.”

Enforcement issues are among those that remain to be finalized, with China said to still be resisting a U.S. demand that would prevent China from retaliating if the US were to hit China with tariffs in the event they do not live up to terms of the deal. The issue of U.S. tariffs currently in place on Chinese goods also remains a sticking point.

Lawmakers Retry Effort to Alter Checkoff Programs

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Cory Booker, D-N.J., have reintroduced their bill to reform the checkoff program, utilized by U.S. commodity organizations to help promote their products and perform research.

But the programs have earned a controversial reputation due to errant activities involved by some participating in the program.

“Checkoff programs force farmers to pay into a system that sometimes actively works against their interests," said Lee. "On top of that, the boards for these programs have come under fire for a lack of transparency and for misuse of their funds.”

The effort was also tried in the 2018 Farm Bill, but was overwhelmingly rejected in the U.S. Senate version of the bill.

Washington Insider: Controversy Over Food Illnesses and Recalls

Food Safety News is reporting that a Kentucky-centered outbreak of the rare E. coli O103 has exploded to 44 cases in the Bluegrass State and spread to Tennessee, Ohio, and Georgia, according to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP).

As recently as the end of March, the Kentucky case count had stood at 24.

CIDRAP reported on the outbreak last week, although the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to issue a public report on the expanding outbreak. Six of the 44 infected Kentuckians have required hospitalization. E. coli O103 is far less common than the O157: H7 strain, which often causes foodborne disease illnesses.

Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services spokesman Doug Hogan says cases are spread across several counties and thinks that “some sort of food distribution service may be the root cause.” At least 20 additional cases are being investigated by Kentucky public health officials. In addition to Tennessee, Ohio, Georgia, and Indiana is also a possible location for infections.

“Exposure to E. coli bacteria can be debilitating and potentially life-threatening, especially for small children and individuals with weakened immune systems, said Kentucky Health Commissioner Dr. Jeff Howard. Healthcare providers across Kentucky have been alerted to this potential threat and are working with us to make sure patients are identified and are receiving appropriate care. Meanwhile, we encourage all Kentuckians to be aware of the signs and symptoms of E. coli illness and to seek care if they are ill.”

E. coli O103 outbreaks are rare, FSN says. The last large one was almost 20 years ago. In January of 2000, a total of 18 people fell ill in Washington state. Their infections were ultimately linked to drinking punch served at a banquet hall.

The recent food borne illness outbreak comes amid an intensification of efforts by lawmakers and food-safety advocates to press the Food and Drug Administration to “quit dragging its feet on finalizing rules that retailers must follow for letting people know when food has been recalled” — rules Congress intended to have been in place years ago, Bloomberg is reporting this week.

The FSMA gave the FDA a one-year deadline to “publish a list of acceptable conspicuous locations and manners” for retailers. There were 7,420 food recalls in fiscal 2018, including 831 that were classified as the highest risk, according to the FDA. Food recalls also recently gained national attention after an E. coli outbreak last year linked to romaine lettuce, which sickened 43 people in 12 states.

While food safety advocates say it’s difficult to pinpoint a direct correlation between the lack of mandatory recall notices and outbreaks of illnesses, they argue that more information for consumers is better. Tony Corbo, senior food lobbyist at Food and Water Watch, said “consumers should be informed in as many ways as possible” so that they can take action to either “destroy or return the contaminated product for a refund.”

The FDA said it had taken some preliminary steps by issuing agency guidance for retailers but gave no indication of when it would implement the final regulation, the agency told Bloomberg.

Most product recalls are issued voluntarily by the food manufacturer. Under FSMA, FDA can force recalls in certain cases where there is a major public health risk. Retailers are responsible for getting the recalled product off the shelves as soon as possible, under the direction of the agency and manufacturers.

However, it isn’t mandatory for grocery stores to post food recalls or notify customers of products that need to be or have already been pulled off the shelves. Some grocery store chains choose to post voluntarily but food safety advocates want the recall information to be mandatory. That step “is an important part of the law that seems to have fallen by the wayside in the meantime,” said Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Under the FSMA, grocery store chains with 15 or more locations are supposed to display recall notices within 24 hours of their release and keep them posted for 14 days.

Consumers today use many different channels to receive information and the FSMA statute “was limiting and prescriptive to paper-based recall notices,” said Dr. Hilary Thesmar, vice president of food safety programs at the Food Marketing Institute, which represents food retailers told Bloomberg.

The grocer provision offers many conspicuous location options for recall notifications and that “could be why FDA is dragging its feet on this,” said Thomas Gremillion, director of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America.

The current process is so broad it “allows grocery stores to keep doing what they’re doing,” he said. However, a “hard, fast rule would be helpful to make sure stuff is being taken off the shelves.”

There appears to be considerable detective work still necessary to find out just what the source of the current outbreak may turn out to be — and to insure that contaminated products are removed from the food stream as fast as possible. In addition, the debate over just what are the most effective steps to be taken are to prevent the spread of contaminated products should be watched closely by producers as it intensifies, 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