“We believe the FDA needs the necessary authority and resources to its food protection responsibilities and this bill is a good step in that direction, particularly because the focus is on prevention,” says Billings. “Currently we have a system that tries to catch problems after they occur; this system has broken down, as demonstrated by the tomato problem last year and the PCA tragedy earlier this year.”
Echoing others in the industry, FMI is concerned about the provision requiring additional recordkeeping. “We support the Bioterrorism Act’s one-up, one-back process,” says Billings. “Since retailers are at the end of the food logistics supply chain, we would be concerned if it was our responsibility to be a data collector for the entire chain.”
Another concern centers on monetary penalties. “When we began this process, the civil penalties would have been the same, regardless of whether the violation was intentional or unintentional. This meant that an unintentional violation would have been treated the same as a PCA violation,” says Billings. “But working with the leadership of the bill, we were able to make the distinction between the violations and we will continue to work on this as the process continues through the Senate. The entire industry should not be treated as if they are going to be bad actors because of the actions of one or two bad actors.”
Food manufacturers: GMA represents manufacturers of food products other than fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and poultry. It worked with Congress to craft much of this bill, reports Eileen Jarvis, director of federal affairs for the Washington-based association. One provision GMA has been advocating for the last few years is a new requirement for every food manufacturer to have a food safety plan in place, which would document the company’s food safety controls are in place and are working effectively.
“It also requires every food manufacturer to conduct a hazard analysis that identifies potential sources of contamination,” adds Jarvis. “This would be another way to raise the bar to assure everyone is following the same regulations.”
GMA members are concerned with provisions relating to new traceability mandates. Jarvis explains the organization wants to ensure that the FDA conducts traceability pilot projects and feasibility studies prior to issuing new traceability regulations. “Different products have multiple ingredients such as spices and herbs and we want to make sure enough research is conducted to determine the best way to ensure whether or not our companies will be able to trace all the ingredients within their products,” she says.
There can be no one-size-fits-all approach to each product and each facility, Jarvis continues. “All our facilities are very much different from each other, as is each product, so there needs to be some variability in the standards that are put in place. The pilot projects will help educate FDA about how varied and different those standards would have to be in order to create traceability systems for the range of products and processes. We want to make sure the language about the studies and pilots remains in the final law that is passed out of Congress.”
Amidst all the talking points hoping to get their specific concerns heard by legislators’ ears, one fact must not be ignored, and that is how safe our country’s food delivery system really is.
“Many in this industry emphasize that we have an amazingly safe system of getting food to the consumer, especially when you think of the billions of meals we serve that are completely safe,” notes Sansolo. “But, unfortunately, every chain has its weakest link and the one that stands out is the PCA tragedy, which undermined consumer confidence. Sales of peanut butter dropped dramatically, yet there had been no allegation of any problems with jarred peanut butter. But because consumers couldn’t sort out what was really happening, they just stopped buying.”
This kind of reaction explains what the industry faces when consumer confidence is shaken, continues Sansolo. “It reminds us that we have to police ourselves so Congress doesn’t get involved because the more they get involved in a workingman’s business, the more troublesome it gets for us because they don’t understand the nuances that guide everything we do each and every day. What we do is very difficult; we move food from farms to people’s tables and this industry does it better, faster, and cheaper than anyone else.”