FDA gets bumper crop of comments on produce safety

Jul 21, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will have more than 500 comments from the public to sift through when it begins the challenging task of writing regulations to make produce safer.

The agency has set a deadline of Jul 23 for groups and individuals to submit comments on current practices in the production and packing of fresh produce and approaches for improving safety. Comments can be submitted electronically (see links below).

The FDA invited the public to comment in February and set an original deadline of May 24, which was later extended to Jul 23. No firm deadline for developing the produce safety regulations has been set, but it is a top priority for the FDA, agency spokesman Sebastian Cianci told CIDRAP News today.

The move toward produce safety regulation follows a series of disease outbreaks linked to fresh produce in recent years. Notable ones included more than 1,400 Salmonella cases tied to hot peppers imported from Mexico in 2008 and more than 200 Escherichia coli O175:H7 infections linked to bagged fresh spinach from California in 2006. In 2007 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that a dozen Salmonella outbreaks linked to tomatoes had sickened as many as 79,000 people since 1990.

The FDA's online docket for comments on produce safety currently shows 530 comments from individuals, industry groups, and other organizations, with some organizations submitting multiple statements. Examples of groups that have weighed in include the National Organic Coalition, the National Potato Council, the Northwest Horticultural Council, the Produce Safety Project, and the National Watermelon Promotion Board.

Many of the comments from farm and produce industry groups express concern about potentially burdensome regulations that would be especially difficult for small farm operations to deal with.

The FDA has said it plans to consider the wide range of types and sizes of farming operations in the regulations it proposes.

The FDA's move to write produce safety regulations is paralleled by an effort at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop a voluntary marketing agreement for leafy green vegetables with the aim of improving safety. The proposed agreement spells out best practices for minimizing microbial contamination of leafy greens during growing and handling and provides for an audit-based verification program.

Last September and October the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) held seven public hearings on the proposed agreement around the country. Major produce industry groups such as the United Fresh Produce Association, the Leafy Greens Council, and Western Growers have been working with the USDA on the proposal.

When the AMS has finished analyzing comments made at the hearings and afterward, it will publish a proposed decision and solicit another round of comments, according to information on the USDA Web site.

In a statement in February, the FDA and USDA said they expected that "any marketing agreement would conform to any regulations promulgated by FDA."

See also:

FDA information about submitting comments
http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/BuyStoreServeSafeFood/ucm2006738.htm

Feb 18 FDA-USDA press release about produce safety efforts
http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm200965.htm

USDA information on leafy greens marketing agreement

Sep 18, 2007, CIDRAP News story "FDA still weighing steps to prevent produce contamination"

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