SENATE PROPOSAL WOULD SET PRODUCE STANDARDS

WASHINGTON -- Ready-to-eat fresh produce sold at retail, that's sliced, bagged, mixed or served in a salad bar, would be covered by national sanitary standards, as proposed in legislation recently introduced in the Senate.The Fruit and Vegetable Safety Act, introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), has the backing of consumer food safety groups but is being criticized by the produce industry as unnecessary

WASHINGTON -- Ready-to-eat fresh produce sold at retail, that's sliced, bagged, mixed or served in a salad bar, would be covered by national sanitary standards, as proposed in legislation recently introduced in the Senate.

The Fruit and Vegetable Safety Act, introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), has the backing of consumer food safety groups but is being criticized by the produce industry as unnecessary and an overreaction to foodborne illness reports.

Harkin's bill addresses domestically and foreign grown produce and was written in response to reported illnesses tied to bacteria-contaminated fruits and vegetables. Sanitary standards targeted at imported produce is part of a separate bill slated to be introduced by Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine).

"Families are faced with illness or death each time they sit down at a meal or one of their kids grab some fresh fruit or vegetables," said Harkin at a news conference, standing next to a table full of produce that would be covered by his bill, like sliced melons, salad-in-a-bag, bean sprouts and dried coconut.

The bill would set federal general manufacturing practices for the processing of ready-to-eat fresh fruits and vegetables to ensure proper sanitary measures are in place. Wherever raw produce is cut, washed, bagged or otherwise prepared beyond its original state would be subject to annual inspections. In the U.S., inspections would be carried out by local or state health officials. The Food and Drug Administration would inspect foreign suppliers.

Inspectors would check on such things as worker hygiene, whether already cleaned produce is separated from dirty produce, the presence of rodents birds and flies, safety of rinse water and whether produce is being kept at the right temperature.

Regarding domestic produce, John McClung, vice president, industrial relations, United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, said there is already plenty of regulatory oversight to ensure clean processing conditions. The FDA also recently published a set of voluntary sanitary guidelines for the domestic industry to follow.

McClung said Harkin's concept of deploying FDA inspectors to foreign produce sights -- modeling it after the USDA's foreign meat inspection program -- is unrealistic. "When you're talking about produce, you're talking about many more countries than in meat inspection," he said.

Harkin said voluntary efforts such as the FDA voluntary produce safety guidelines is an example of how the administration's approach to food safety has been as a "bully pulpit. But there comes a time when you have to have national standards for domestic and imported produce."

One obstacle facing the bill is funding, which Harkin acknowledged is already stretched pretty thin at the FDA. However, Harkin, ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has been persuasive in the past in getting more money for food safety. Last year he led an effort to restore $66 million to the administration's food safety initiative, which eventually received $75 million.

John J. Motley, senior vice president, government and public affairs, Food Marketing Institute, said he'll have to study Harkin's bill. "We're very concerned about food safety and any legitimate piece of legislation we'll consider carefully," he said.