Produce Groups Reach Out Again to HHS Sec. Leavitt for Meeting

After an initial request for a meeting met with no response, the top officials from United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marketing Association sent a follow up letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt last week urging him again to meet with them to discuss lessons learned from the current Salmonella saintpaul outbreak, and ways to improve outbreak management in general.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services oversees both the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

The letter was signed by United Fresh president Tom Stenzel and PMA president Bryan Silbermann; and copied to Andrew C. von Eschenbach, FDA commissioner; David W.K. Acheson, FDA’s associate commissioner for foods; Julie Gerberding, director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Lonnie King, director of CDC’s National Center for Zoonotic, Vector-Borne, and Enteric Diseases.

“Since our first request, the number of people sickened by the Salmonella saintpaul outbreak has increased, and the economic losses to our members have reached a critical point,” Stenzel and Silbermann wrote. “The public is more confused than ever and consumer confidence in government health agencies is rapidly eroding. With this in mind, it is imperative that we engage in a frank and open dialogue on needed improvements.

The trade group leaders mentioned that “investigators have concerns about industry recordkeeping and traceback capabilities,” and said the industry is eager to “make necessary improvements.”

While the produce industry has gone on record many times to support FDA and CDC “when we believe their actions are based on sound science,” the trade group heads said, “We cannot fulfill our mutual goal of protecting the public health without collaboration between our industry and the government. We want to be active participants in finding solutions that will enhance our food safety practices. At such a critical time, we are at a loss to understand why you have not responded to our request for a meeting.”

The industry representatives also took urged Leavitt to try to tone down the “speculation” and “continued lack of clarity in the communications regarding the current outbreak situation” between government officials and the press, which they said “is casting a wider net of suspicion and doubt over the safety of all produce, further undermining consumer confidence and fueling industry and public frustration.”
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