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Published September 12, 2011, 04:30 AM

A food safety solution

WASHINGTON — Some national produce industry groups seem to be exploiting a recent outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria, thought to have originated in strawberries from an Oregon farm, for the purposes of discrediting or even repealing the Tester-Hagan amendment included in last year’s landmark Food Safety Modernization Act in Congress.

WASHINGTON — Some national produce industry groups seem to be exploiting a recent outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria, thought to have originated in strawberries from an Oregon farm, for the purposes of discrediting or even repealing the Tester-Hagan amendment included in last year’s landmark Food Safety Modernization Act in Congress.

While members of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition agree there are lessons yet to be learned from this incident, we think that grandstanding on anyone’s part will do nothing to improve the safety of our nation’s food supply.

NSAC supported the Tester-Hagan amendment — and advocated for its inclusion in the final legislation — for the reason that it allows smaller farms that sell products locally to play to their natural strengths in terms of food safety.

Transparency and traceability are the hallmarks of any food safety strategy, and the amendment specifically mandates such measures in a way that no other sector of the food system can. The amendment includes specific notifications to consumers about the origin of the food they are buying.

Solution set

The problems encountered in Oregon were, in fact, traced by local health officials with significant speed and accuracy, hampered only by the failure of some resellers of the tainted berries to make such declarations. It seems clear that Tester-Hagan is not the problem in this case, but represents the needed solution.

The scale of these operations allows for a traceable feedback loop between shopper and farmer. Short supply chains, in which the identity of a farm is preserved throughout, have a distinct public health value. NSAC, therefore, encourages the provision’s full and expedient implementation.

Groups trying to use this unfortunate incident, in which one elderly person died, to their political advantage also are concerned about any regulation that levels the playing field for smaller producers and that recognizes the tremendous risks inherent in large-scale production and distribution schemes.

It is too early to say for sure — which should give us all pause — but the current theory is that infected deer may have wandered into the field by chance, contaminating the product in a random way that cannot be fixed by routine procedural changes.

Health officials have emphasized that the farm in question did nothing wrong, and based on sales and marketing methods, it may not be eligible for Tester-Hagan provisions in any case. This begs the question of how the repeal of Tester-Hagan would be relevant in any way.

Training and education

The FSMA also authorized a National Food Safety Training, Education, Extension, Outreach and Technical Assistance competitive grants program.

The program would provide food safety training, education, extension, outreach and technical assistance to owners and operators of farms, small food processors and small fruit and vegetable merchant wholesalers, with a priority on small and mid-size farms.

Once again, NSAC asserts that the necessary solutions are right in front of us and calls on all affected industry groups to join us in encouraging full, and fully funded, implementation of the legislation that now is in place.

Editor’s Note: The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is a grass-roots alliance that advocates for federal policy reform supporting the long-term social, economic and environmental sustainability of agriculture, natural resources and rural communities.

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