By: Michael R. Taylor
Spring may be on the way, but it’s still winter weather in most areas of the country. If you are enjoying fresh avocados, berries or grapes, there is a good chance they came from Mexico. In fact, about two-thirds of the fresh produce imported into the United States comes from our neighbor to the south.
Ensuring the safety of imported produce is a major focus of FDA’s food safety strategy. That is why I am in Tubac, Arizona to meet with Mexican government officials and producers of fresh fruits and vegetables from both sides of the border. The meeting is sponsored by the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas and the Center for Produce Safety in Davis, California – two organizations that take food safety very seriously.
There’s no substitute for face-to-face meetings like this to move the needle forward on food safety. Under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), FDA is developing standards for produce safety that, when implemented, will raise the food safety bar for produce sold in the U.S., whether grown here or in other countries. However, we also have to focus on how the new standards can be effectively and efficiently implemented. How will government and industry – both in the U.S. and abroad – operate under the new requirements? How can we take best advantage of our collective efforts to understand and prevent foodborne hazards and verify that applicable standards have been met? That, after all, is where the rubber meets the road.
We don’t have all the answers yet, but we do know we can’t do it alone. I’m joined in Tubac by Samir Assar, who heads FDA’s Produce Safety Team, Dominic Veneziano, who directs our import operations; and Bruce Ross, deputy director of FDA’s Latin America office. And we are sharing the podium with Hugo Fragoso Sanchez from SENASICA and Mario Alanis Garza from COFEPRIS – the two Mexican agencies with which we have long worked closely on food safety.
Historically, our government-to-government collaboration has come mostly in response to outbreaks, import alerts and other incidents. Now, we are focused on work we can do together to better understand potential foodborne hazards and take risk-based steps to prevent or minimize them. This means building partnerships to implement FSMA in the United States and at our common border, as well as collaborating with Mexico to support its food safety modernization initiatives.
Food safety partnerships – at the U.S.-Mexico border and across the food system – must, of course, extend well beyond government. The food safety practices of growers and processors, coupled with private sector supply-chain management, are what make food safe. Government establishes the common base of standards and provides a measure of public accountability for food safety, but verification that standards are being met is a joint public-private effort.
So, we are taking advantage of the Tubac meeting to talk to members of the produce industry about how public and private verification efforts can mesh. Our goal is simple: We want to provide the high levels of assurance about the safety of produce and other food that FSMA calls for and consumers expect. And, in a world of finite resources, we can do that only by relying, where possible, on others to complement our own efforts, and by avoiding duplication.
The next step in building our partnership with Mexico is a three-day meeting in late March with our SENASICA and COFEPRIS colleagues that we will be hosting at our Silver Spring, MD, headquarters. That discussion will build on past collaborative efforts on training, laboratory coordination, risk assessment and outbreak response, but it will be looking ahead to how we can build partnerships for the prevention of food safety problems. After the meeting, we will also be engaging our private stakeholders – industry, consumers, and academia – in this dialogue.
“Partnership” is an easy word to say, but making it real is hard work. We have to learn, continuously, about and from each other; and we have to deal with hard issues in order to expand and align our capacities, share data and information across both public and public-private lines, and build the trust that is the basis for mutual reliance. Some of this will be hard, but we wouldn’t be in Tubac if we didn’t think it were possible – and if we didn’t know active partnership is essential to achieving the food safety goals we all share.
We’ll keep you posted on our progress.
Michael R. Taylor is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine