Text Size:   A+ A- A   •   Text Only
Site Image
Processors group gets message on new food safety law

ODA Director Coba speaks to NW Food Processors Association about FSMA

It will take a partnership of industry, state government, and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to put together and implement a fair and effective food safety system that emphasizes prevention over reaction, according to Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba. However, Coba is confident such a system will ultimately prevail as FDA develops rules connected to the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Coba’s comments were delivered to the Northwest Food Processors Association Exposition and Conference held this week in Portland. Her keynote address focused on the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and what it means to an Oregon food industry that reaches from processors and packers down to individual farmers.

“The message I’d like to share with you is that we are definitely in this together,” Coba told the breakfast gathering at the Portland Convention Center. “Ideally, we would like to have a partnership with industry, the states, and FDA as we move forward on FSMA. Otherwise, it’s just too much, too big. We need to collectively bring all of our knowledge and resources together to get what we are all after, which is to have equal emphasis on food safety and on the economic viability of our food industry in Oregon, the Pacific Northwest, and the United States. I know we can do it.”

Currently proposed FSMA rules deal with produce safety, preventive controls for human food, imports, third-party verification, and preventive control for animal food and feed.

In her address, Coba set the stage by telling the audience that agriculture is alive and well, pointing out that the 2012 on-farm value of production in Oregon reached a record high of $5.4 billion   and that agricultural activity– from production to packing to processing to shipping– is the state’s second largest traded sector behind high tech, representing about 15 percent of the state’s gross product.

“We have all seen what has happened the past decade in terms of people’s passion with food,” said Coba. “They want to know where it is coming from and how it is being grown. Food is exciting. But with it, come challenges. The latest statistics from Centers for Disease Control indicate 48 million people got sick from food borne pathogens in 2011. That is about one in six Americans. It’s even more serious when an illness results in death. For those of us who have been through food recalls, it’s not a fun thing to go through. It’s an incredibly tense time and the market ramifications are nothing any of us want to see. Yet, we have seen more high profile cases of food borne illness in the past decade. It was the food industry and food regulators who collectively said that we need to bring the food safety regulation system up to a level that is more in tune with what is happening in the real world.”

Coba says the current system is archaic and not meeting today’s needs. As Congress debated FSMA, regulators and the food industry supported an improved system that moved from reacting to food illness outbreaks to preventing them. When President Obama signed the law in 2011, there wasn’t much concern being heard. But in the three years since, there has been a great deal of anxiousness about its implementation.

“Talk to the sources of your food, your farmers, especially on the produce side,” Coba told processors. “People are concerned, they are nervous. I’ve heard many say that if the rules were implemented as initially drafted, they would go out of business.”

Coba and ODA staff have worked with the agriculture industry on facilitating and developing comments to the proposed rules. Of particular concern have been irrigation water testing and water quality standards that will apply to most irrigated fresh produce. FDA has announced that it will revise the proposed rules on produce safety and preventive control. A second comment period will be held on those changes.

“We need to be understanding and respectful of the incredible work load FDA has undertaken as there has never been anything like FSMA before,” said Coba. “FDA is learning along with the rest of us as we move along. The good news is, we will have a second chance for public comment on some key elements of the rules.”

Coba also reiterated a common theme among public comments on FSMA– the complexity of the rules and its exemptions, and hopes that final rules will be easier for growers, packers, and processors to understand.

Two other concerns about FSMA include funding and the state’s role moving forward.

“Congress has not appropriated any additional money to fund the Food Safety Modernization Act,” said Coba. “If the states are going to take on more of an inspection role, we don’t have the resources at our level to do that. In Oregon, 75 percent of our Food Safety Program funding comes from our fee payers– the processors, grocers, and others that we inspect. During my tenure at ODA, I’ve learned that there is a level of fees that companies can afford to pay. Once you get beyond that, it doesn’t matter. If the fees are too high, companies will go out of business. We have to be sensitive to that and figure out how to fund all of this new work coming at us.”

The other challenge is how Oregon and other states are going to interact with FDA.

“We’ve been having a lot of conversations with FDA because we don’t have what we consider a true partnership yet,” Coba told the audience. “The states would like to move to something more of a cooperative or collaborative partnership with FDA, where you jointly identify what needs to be inspected, what FDA is going to do, what the state is going to do, and above all, what will happen if FDA and the state disagree on something. How will that difference of opinion be resolved? We aren’t there yet, but the issue is critically important.”

Coba summed up her comments by saying that the FSMA rules are challenging enough, but implementing them is a whole new regulatory challenge. With a court ordered mandate of FSMA rule adoption by June 30, 2015, ODA’s director says there is a lot of work to do in the next year and a half. Coba concluded that it’s the collaborative relationship with industry sectors like the food processors that will help lead to success.

For more information, contact Bruce Pokarney at (503) 986-4559.

PDF version

Audio version