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FDA, agriculture at dangerous food-safety crossroads

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  • The Food and Drug Administration, in part, works to protect the U.S. food supply. Yet the FDA has a mixed record. Sometimes, the agency has done a good job. Other times, the agency has blown it with deep financial scars left on agriculture’s side.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and agriculture are often on opposite sides of the fence. It’s a love-hate relationship of sorts.

The federal agency in part works to protect the U.S. food supply. Yet the FDA has a mixed record. Sometimes, the agency has done a good job. Other times, the agency has blown it with deep financial scars left on agriculture’s side.

One of the worst breakdowns in U.S. food safety over the last decade was the 2006 outbreak of the bacteria E. coli 0157:H7 in 2006 in spinach grown in a single field in California’s San Benito County.

The food-safety breach caused three deaths and several hundred illnesses. Simply put, the food-safety breach was a human travesty.

The FDA never identified the absolute source of the E. coli but some believe it was from feces tracked into the field by an animal, possibly a feral pig.

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As a result, consumers became very skittish of leafy green consumption and sales of the vegetable smashed into a concrete wall. Estimated financial losses to agriculture totaled in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

After the tragedy, some good came from it. The western leafy greens industry launched a voluntary effort to strengthen food safety practices along the food chain. Instead of the FDA clamping down excessively on agriculture, government allowed industry to implement its own stringent policies which have worked.

In 2008, the FDA blew it in a salmonella food safety outbreak which unjustly brought agriculture to its financial knees. The FDA reported that the POSSIBLE source was California-grown tomatoes.

As a result, consumers in mass stopped buying the vegetable which resulted in severe financial losses to the tomato industry.

Once the facts were in, FDA linked the poisoning to jalapeno and Serrano peppers grown in Mexico. Following this incident, the FDA halted its speculative guesses and reported strictly the facts in future food safety incidents.

With this all said, the FDA and agriculture are now entering another chapter in the book of food safety. FDA has released proposed rules to enact the Food Safety Modernization Act, the first overhaul of the nation’s food safety laws in about 70 years.

With so many scientific advances in the food safety cause over the decades, there is no doubt that food safety laws should be calibrated.

Yet FDA is at a crossroad. Will the agency enact rules only where needed, or apply regulations across the food chain, where needed or not, causing agriculture to unnecessarily pour out millions of dollars.

I recommend that the FDA act on the facts and consider agriculture’s input, rather than strictly flex its regulatory muscle simply because it can.

Consumers and agriculture have a lot at stake with the FSMA rules.

The FDA better get it right.

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