WASHINGTON -- Members of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association put Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) on the hot seat here recently at the group's annual public-policy conference.
Harkin, the sponsor of the Fruit and Vegetable Safety Act, which is opposed by UFFVA members, was showered with questions and complaints about the legislation, which he said would ensure a safe food supply.
"We have too many incidents of foodborne illness," Harkin told the UFFVA breakfast gathering. "The cost to people is catastrophic, and the cost to companies can be tremendous."
According to Harkin, since 1990 more than 40 outbreaks of foodborne illness have been linked to fresh fruit, vegetable and juice products consumed in the United States. More than 6,300 illnesses resulted in almost all 50 states. He cited domestic melons, lettuce, sprouts, orange juice and imported strawberries as the prime culprits.
United audience members openly criticized the bill as an overreaction to illness reports and said that any more regulatory oversight of the fruit and vegetable industry by the government does not acknowledge the industry's own successful efforts to protect foodstuffs from pathogens. Others said the legislation would be unworkable and would not provide for scientific analysis or weigh the risks and benefits of produce consumption to consumers.
Among the concerns stressed by United audience members was the perceived lack of FDA inspection expertise, as well as experience.
"I'm not talking about a USDA-type inspection like that of meats," Harkin explained in his response. "What I'm talking about is having FDA do its job a little differently."
Harkin said that most processors in the United States are already following "reasonable standards" and are keeping their products safe, but that his bill would bring everyone up to par domestically and allow FDA to address produce sanitation problems in importing countries.
As currently written, the bill would put in place federal best-manufacturing practices for the processing of fresh fruits and vegetables to ensure proper sanitary measures exist. Any location where raw produce is cut, washed or bagged would be subject to annual inspections. In the United States, inspections would be carried out by local and state health officials. The Food and Drug Administration would inspect foreign suppliers.
Inspectors would check to make sure that rinsing water is clean, sewage is kept away from the food, workers wash their hands, flies, birds and rodents are not near the produce, and produce is being kept at the proper temperature.
The legislation, introduced April 15, 1999, is currently stalled in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
"I want to work with all of you to come up with a harmonized and consistent food-safety system in this century," Harkin said.
"We must make all standards applicable to everyone," he said. "We have to get the bad actors out before they give everyone a bad eye."
Harkin has two other pieces of legislation before the Senate Agriculture Committee. The Safe And Fair Enforcement and Recall for Meat and Poultry Act (SAFER Meat and Poultry Act) would amend the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act to "provide for improved public health and food safety through enhanced enforcement."
The National Uniformity for Food Act of 1999, which Harkin co-sponsored, would amend the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to provide for uniform food-safety warning notification requirements.