Harkin offers two food safety-related proposals

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said he will again mandate a presidential commission on food safety in the farm bill being drafted in the Senate. The commission was created in the 2002 farm bill but was never constituted.

"The government panel announced by the White House earlier this year will review only imported foods, a shortsighted goal given the increasing number of food safety recalls happening with food produced in the United States," Mr. Harkin said. "But to examine the safety of both imported and domestically produced food, comprehensive recommendations from a food safety commission are needed. The farm bill I am working on in the Senate will include a presidential commission to examine the entire system."

Separate from the farm bill process, Mr. Harkin introduced Sept. 20 the Fresh Produce Safety Act of 2007 that would provide the Food and Drug Administration the authority to make its current voluntary guidelines on the handling of fresh produce mandatory. The bill was cosponsored by Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois and Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin.

Mr. Harkin acknowledged industry groups have taken steps to restore consumer confidence.

"But this regional, patchwork approach is simply not adequate," he said. "We need a national program to ensure the safety of all fresh produce in every supermarket in America."

The bill would require produce companies follow food safety guidelines that currently are voluntary. The legislation would require national standards tailored to specific types of produce and the particular risk factors arising from the way each is grown and handled. It would require increased inspections of operations that grow and process fresh produce. It would establish a surveillance system to identify and stop the sources of fresh produce contamination of produce, and a research program to aid in understanding and preventing contamination of produce. Imported produce would be held to the same standards as produce grown in the United States.

The increased inspections would be conducted on the basis of risk assessment, with processing facilities or grower operations differentiated into low-risk, medium-risk and high-risk enterprises according to what is handled and the track record of the facilities.

The bill also would require more scrupulous recordkeeping and ensure the F.D.A. has prompt and unfettered access to relevant company records.

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