WASHINGTON DC - What power, if any, does the produce industry have over its fate when the CDC and FDA makes what seems like snap decisions, much of that to taboo romaine lettuce weeks ago? With this question in mind I went to the voices of our industry on government issues.
Taking me into something of a reverse chronology, United Fresh’s Jennifer McEntire, VP Food Safety & Technology, explains how the industry gains information and why potential conflicts of interest limit our ability to help tighten the system.
“When an announcement is to be made public, depending on how quickly the agencies can work, we get a heads up 30 minutes to an hour beforehand. It never feels like enough time,” Jennifer admits, but explains that with public safety in mind the FDA and CDC have to move fast. “Prior to that there might be rumors. Upon hearing any concerns from the industry, we will reach out and the FDA and CDC will be prompt to respond but often don’t have much they can share.”
Between confidentiality issues and ongoing questions in its investigation, the agencies can rarely give the industry answers that might help it circumvent the losses that accumulate in a massive advisory like that of romaine lettuce days before Thanksgiving.
“We are definitely strengthening our relationship with the FDA, but the best way to cultivate this is when we’re not in crisis mode,” Jennifer shares, explaining that the FDA and/or CDC will usually give industry representatives a heads up that an announcement will be made and organize a call prior to that announcement.
“These calls are usually limited to 30 minutes with a strict structure: here's what happened, here's what we are doing, do you have questions? To that, we’ve gotten much better at asking those questions, and sometimes the answers are comprehensive and very helpful. Sometimes, though, there’s just not a lot they are able to disclose,” she comments.
In these situations, Jennifer says the FDA and CDC have strict codes of conduct that United Fresh respects and adheres to in the interest of maintaining and strengthening that relationship. When I ask how much, if anything, the produce industry can do in aiding an investigation prior to the seemingly drastic measure of purging the market of a core product, she says they do everything possible without treading over the line.
“Unfortunately, conflict of interest prohibits involving the industry in the federal investigation. We are exploring ways of how we can do that while being cognizant of those restrictions, and I think there a lot of areas worth exploring, but it’s important to remember that you are always in danger of interfering in an investigation, and of course we would never want that.”
While the waters of how these decisions are made and where the buck falls are still a bit murky, one key takeaway for me is that the voices of our industry remain strong and continue looking for ways to better the process.