Last week, farmers from across the North and South forks of Suffolk county Long Island showed a group of us from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets the incredible diversity of their farms and the challenges FDA faces in writing a “produce safety” rule.
Bob Nolan, who farms 30 acres with his son and uncle, invited us because he heard that we had walked the rows of other fresh fruit and vegetable farms across the country. In fact, this was the 14th state we visited in the last year or so. We have seen the orchards of Oregon, the vast vegetable fields of California, Amish farms in Ohio, irrigation-dependent produce operations in Texas, vegetable farms in Delaware, North Carolina family farms, and Florida tomato fields to name just a few.
And each time, we have come away with new insights from the farmers and their families about how they are already addressing produce safety concerns, what they expect from an FDA rule, and the challenges of maintaining their way of life.
Our Long Island tour was a microcosm of the diversity we have seen across the country. Organized by Cornell extension agent Sandy Menasha and Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela, the tour of seven farms ranged from small to large, conventional to organic, first-generation farmer to twelfth generation.
Let’s face it, the first question a federal official gets asked on a farm is as blunt as the summer day is long: Why are you here? Mike Taylor, the FDA deputy commissioner for foods, has a pretty good answer: If we’re going to get this produce safety rule right, we need to learn from you.
That’s it in a nutshell. While FDA and its colleagues at USDA bring to the table scientific and public health expertise, we all know that farms are very much the real world of soil, air and water open to the elements 24/7 and worked by humans and animals. Farmers can inform us from their experience and practices.
Just see the different perspectives shared with us last week: the first-generation organic farm of the Garden of Eve; the 225-acre Ed Zilnicki and Sons’ potato farm; Nolan’s 30-acre Deer Farms devoted to leafy greens; the “agritainment” and “u-pick” farms like Hank’s Pumpkin Town, Harbes’ Family Farm, and the Milk Pail; and the farm stand run by Jim and Jennifer Pike.
And we got to hear loud and clear what the farmers expect from the FDA. “I can’t hire a food safety guy. I am the food safety guy,” Bob Nolan said. Hank Kraszewski wants the produce safety rule to be “crystal clear.” Tell farmers straight out, “What do I have to do,” he said. Record-keeping can’t become burdensome for small farmers like themselves, Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht and Jim Pike told us.
Farmers are also thirsty to learn more. Horse manure is a time-honored soil amendment for the sandy fields of Long Island. How can they apply it safely, they want to know.
And, while we heard that while farmers get it about food safety, they also want us to get it about the economic realities they face. Several had struggled in the ‘90s when wholesale potato farming became less profitable and they moved to other commodities and on-farm retail sales.
Successful produce safety is possible if farmers and food safety officials work together, listening to each other and learning from each other.
Sharon Natanblut, Senior Advisor to the Deputy Commissioner for Foods, FDA
In June, I had the opportunity to lead a delegation of food safety officials from the Food and Drug Administration to meet with our Mexican counterparts. The trip was part of a larger, proactive strategy to reach out to stakeholders, both domestic and foreign, to explain the background and implementation strategies for the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and importantly, to listen to issues raised by stakeholders. Following Canada, Mexico is the largest exporter of foods to the United States. It was an exciting opportunity to meet with Mexican officials, not only to provide outreach on our new law, but also to gain a better understanding of Mexican food safety interests and challenges, and to identify areas for collaboration to further ensure the safety of foods for our respective populations.
Throughout the discussions, our team was impressed with the level of agreement on overarching principles and strategies to assure foods are safe for our respective populations. Like us, Mexico has embraced food safety as a priority and is in the process of establishing new mandatory food safety regulations, including produce safety regulations. Some of the key themes that were emphasized throughout our discussions were consumer protection, science- based standards, the need for importer controls, the importance and role of third- party certification. Throughout our discussions, I felt that I was indeed hearing many of the principles embodied in FSMA, such as the importance of prevention, the need to establish strong partnerships, a robust import program, and an effective program of risk-based inspections. In addition, there was a common recognition of the importance of making sure new regulations consider trade impacts, and the importance of transparency in rulemaking. Our strong alignment on key principles was both gratifying and extremely encouraging.
We had a whirlwind schedule. Highlights are as follows:
Our FDA delegation was welcomed to Mexico by Honorable John D. Feeley, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires to Mexico, and Mr. James H. Williams, Acting Deputy Chief of Mission, at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. The FDA delegation also met with representatives of U.S. agencies at the U.S. embassy in Mexico from Foreign Agricultural Services, Foreign Commercial Service, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service; and the State Department Economic Section. Embassy officials were very helpful in sharing their perspectives on FSMA and potential cooperative activities with Mexico. Last year, FDA opened its new office in Mexico City. We were delighted to see our staff integrated into US Embassy activities and representing the agency in a stellar manner with our regulatory counterparts.
Next, we had an informative meeting with Mexican Government agencies involved in food safety. Mexican Government agencies represented included: Secretariat of Agriculture – Secretaría de Agricultura, Ganadería, Desarrollo Rural, Pesca y Alimentación / Servicio Nacional de Sanidad, Inocuidad y Calidad Agroalimentaria (SENASICA); Secretariat of Health – Comisión Federal para la Protección contra Riesgos Sanitarios (COFEPRIS); Secretariat of Economy – Secretaria de Economía; Secretariat of Foreign Affairs – Secretaria de Relaciones Exteriores; and Secretariat of the Environment- Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (which is the agency in charge of CONAGUA which plays an essential role in helping to ensure the quality of water used in farming and agriculture). Later in the day, we had a discussion with SENASICA to learn more and discuss their latest proposal for the revision of the FDA-SENASICA Cantaloupe MOU, which is scheduled to expire in October, 28, 2011. The parties agreed to further discuss possible opportunities for the enhancement of the MOU including possible enhanced collaboration on technical and operational protocols, exchange of regulatory information, as well as on food safety research.
We had the pleasure of having lunch with representatives of Mexican academic institutions including: National Autonomous University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México); National Polytechnic Institute (National Instituto Politecnico); The Autonomous University of Puebla (Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla); and the Postgraduate College (Colegio de Postgraduados). The luncheon emphasized the important contribution of academia to the regulatory process on innovation and research, not only in food safety science but also in pubic health, political science, and business management.
One of the most dynamic parts of the day was a joint FDA, SENASICA and COFEPRIS roundtable with Mexican industry and trade organizations. Industry and trade expressed their concerns, views, and suggestions on FSMA. Participants discussed Mexico’s inspection protocols and FDA’s inspection procedures and import protocols at the border. We addressed questions related to produce safety preventive controls.
Following the meeting with industry, I participated in a press conference with senior officials from SENASICA and COFEPRIS and Mexican news media during which we were able to reinforce common messages on food safety.
We had a wonderful, productive day in Mexico. We acknowledged and indeed celebrated our common commitment to food safety.
Michael R. Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods
Did you miss the FDA Basics webinar about how to use a food label to make smart food choices?
Materials from the webinar are now available on the FDA Basics website.
Check out the "What's New" box on the FDA Basics homepage to download materials from the webinar. We have posted a link to view and listen to the 30 minute webinar and posted a link to download a copy of the presentation slides.
You can find materials from past FDA Basics webinars here.
Afia Asamoah, Transparency Initiative Coordinator
Upcoming Event: FDA Basics Webinar on Using a Food Label to Make Smart Food Choices, Tuesday, August 10, 1:30 p.m. ET
What is "% DV" found on food labels and why is it important? What’s the relationship between serving size and total calories?
As part of FDA Basics, FDA is hosting a webinar where you can learn more. The featured speaker, Essie Yamini, a nutritionist and a Registered Dietitian with a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry, works with the science review team at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Dr. Yamini will give an overview and answer questions about the Nutrition Facts Label. After the presentation there will be an opportunity to ask questions.
The free 30 minute webinar will be held on Tuesday, August 10, at 1:30 p.m. ET.
Sign in early, since there are a limited number of spots available for the webinar. Materials from the webinar will also be made available on the FDA Web site.
Click here for more information about the webinar, including instructions about how to join the webinar.
Afia Asamoah, Transparency Initiative Coordinator