FDA head travels to farm country

Scott Gottlieb, head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, speaks with farmers about the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act during a recent stop at a feedlot near Bend, Ore.

It must have been the first time a head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ever visited a feedlot in Central Oregon — or anywhere else, for that matter.

But there Scott Gottlieb was, at the Barley Beef feedlot near Bend, Ore., talking about the Food Safety Modernization Act with farmers, ranchers and others. His message: Implementing the easy part of FSMA is done. “The issues we’re grappling now are hard.”

FSMA represents a sea-change in how the FDA handles food safety. Formerly, the agency concentrated on figuring out what went wrong when someone became ill from food. Seven years ago, Congress changed that role to preventing food-borne illnesses.

As FDA considered how to do that, the agency’s regulation writers got creative. Among the issues they looked at was treating irrigation water for onions, though there had never been problems in the past. Ultimately, Oregon State University researchers showed that irrigation water did not cause any bacterial contamination problems in onions. In fact, no E. coli was found in onions even after they were irrigated with bacteria-laden water. Researchers also found that switching from wooden to plastic onion bins would have no food safety benefit. The FDA wanted to require the change, which would have cost millions of dollars and, apparently, accomplish nothing.

The issues reached a head, so to speak, when FDA regulators turned their pens to spent grains from breweries. For centuries, leftover grain from making beer has been fed to cattle with no problems. The fact the grain had been steeped in 170-degree water apparently didn’t impress the FDA, which wanted spent grains handled the same as all animal feed, including drying and packaging them. The added cost of doing that meant the spent grains would go to landfills instead.

After brewers in Oregon and around the U.S. pointed out those senseless requirements to members of Congress, including Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., the rules were dropped.

And all that was the easy part of FSMA?

The FDA doesn’t want to saddle the fresh produce industry with burdensome unintended consequences, Gottlieb told the group at the feedlot. That sounds good.

We can only hope FDA regulation writers stick to science and not extrapolations of their imaginations as they come up with ways to keep the U.S. fresh food supply safe. They should not get extra credit for creating solutions to problems that don’t exist.

Gottlieb, who is a doctor and has worked at FDA even before becoming its top administrator last year, also faces a pile of other agriculture-related issues, including the insistence of some food manufacturers on using the term “milk” on their concoctions made from soybeans, nuts, rice and other commodities. Another issue is whether the FDA or USDA should oversee the production of meat grown in petri dishes. Ranchers favor USDA for that job.

We’re rooting for the good doctor to continue to simplify FSMA regulations and make sure they prevent food safety problems without preventing farmers, ranchers — and even brewers — from doing their jobs safely and efficiently.

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