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United’s Regulatory Call Faces Big Hurdles

We recently spoke kindly of the announcement by United Fresh that it was calling for mandatory government regulation of the produce industry.

It was quite a turn-around for United, as one of the leaders of the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative pointed out to the Pundit that it seemed like just yesterday that Tom Stenzel, CEO and president of United Fresh, traversed the country repeating like a mantra that the problem was “One day at one plant on one product.”

To go from the notion that this was an isolated, almost idiosyncratic, problem to the notion that the solution is mandatory government regulation of hundreds of items that have never been implicated in a food safety outbreak, grown in 50 states, over a hundred countries and tens of thousands of growing areas is a big leap.

So big, in fact, that it is likely nothing is going to happen — at least for a long time. It is not obvious to this Pundit that the South Carolina peach industry, the Montana cherry industry, the Idaho plum industry or the Vermont organic produce industry are going to join in and beg Congress to pass, and the President to sign, a bill to regulate them.

These may not be the largest produce industry segments, but as everyone who looks to get laws passed knows, it is quite hard to get things through the Senate if even one senator really wants to stop it. Typically the Senate runs, if it is running at all, on the “unanimous consent” of its members.

In addition, our obligations under the World Trade Organization require regulations imposed on imported items to be science-based, and there is some doubt that we will be able to develop the scientific backing to successfully defend the regulations ultimately enacted.

Our sense is that the domestic support for this kind of law would collapse if US growers felt that foreign producers would not be held to the same standard.

The logistics are also daunting. We still have not finalized the Good Agricultural Practices document for spinach, lettuce and other leafy greens — this despite the advantages we have had: First, we had an existing document. Second, it is a field with large companies and processors that had already thought long and hard about food safety. Third, we have been able to give a virtual carte blanche to the limited scientific and technical staff of our associations to work on this full bore. Fourth, major research institutions such as the University of California at Davis were positioned to help. Fifth, we have been able to get substantial amounts of money quickly to further research in this area. Yet with all these advantages, the document still isn’t done.

How many years will it take to draft similar documents for every item?

Then we still have to deal with implementation. How many highly trained and skilled auditors are there in the country? In the world? How many years will it take to educate and train a staff to audit every item in every country on the planet that might find its way to the U.S.?

Perhaps United needs to take a step back in order to move two steps forward.

It can keep the idea of mandatory federal regulation of the produce industry as a long-term goal. But develop a parallel legislative strategy to achieve this goal in stages. The logical first stage would be a national regulatory program for spinach, lettuce and other leafy greens.

This would avoid an internal produce industry clash as many growers, commodity groups and regional associations resist United’s call. It would also create a useful case study on how regulation works on fresh produce, and other commodities would watch it with interest.

Most importantly, it would also avoid this terrible danger: That having made its pronouncement, but being unable to effectuate it into law, nothing happens at all… until the next outbreak.

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