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NAMA News – January 11, 2013

January 11, 2013

FDA Releases Two Major Proposed Food Safety Rules

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released two long-awaited proposed rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA): preventive controls for human food and standards for produce.  In developing the preventive controls proposal, FDA assessed risk by applying the framework of hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) and will require food manufacturers to develop written, risk-based, food safety plans to identify and then outline how to address microbial, chemical, physical, and radiological hazards.

The plan, which is based on HACCP principles, must be produced by a “qualified individual” (the FDA has not yet defined how to qualify a specialist as such), who will identify potential hazards, put in place steps to address them, verify that the steps are working, and outline corrective action for any problems that arise.

FDA is also requesting comment on other important issues not addressed in the text of the regulation itself.  For example, FDA did not include provisions that require product testing, environmental monitoring, or supplier approval and verification.  These issues are discussed in an appendix to the proposed rule as “elements of a preventive control system” and could still become part of the final rule. The produce safety rule focuses on the four major pathways for the introduction of microbiological hazards—water, employee hygiene, soil amendments, and incursion by animals.  The rule would target commodities and practices where FDA asserts intervention can significantly reduce risk.

Farm Bill Extension Signed into Law

On January 3, 2013, President Obama signed the American Taxpayer Relief Act into law, which contains a nine-month extension of some sections of the Farm Bill.   The bill passed the House of Representatives the day before by a vote of 257 to 167, including support from 172 of the chamber’s Democrats and 85 of the Republicans.  The Senate passed the bill New Year’s Eve by a vote of 89-8.

The law allows taxes to rise for those with incomes above $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for couples. It also will renew tax credits aimed at low-income households and college students, extend unemployment benefits, and delay automatic spending cuts in defense and other government programs for two months, until March 1.

Agriculture groups that had worked on reforms in a five-year farm bill were disappointed with the limited extension of current programs. House Agriculture Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) say they plan to begin work soon on a new farm bill.

Federal Program Funding Uncertain for 2013

The farm bill extension included authorizing language to continue the foreign market development program at the current level of $34.5 million. However, funding for this program and other Agriculture Department programs ends in March.  Congress did not approve full-year funding for government programs last year and approved a short-term “continuing resolution” to fund programs.

Annual work on government funding is scheduled to begin in February with the submission of the Obama administration’s budget proposal to Congress.  By law, the spending proposal is due the first Monday in February, which will be February 4.  It appears this deadline will not be met this year, and the submission could be delayed until March.  This will further complicate funding decisions this spring.

New Republican Leadership on Senate Agriculture Committee

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) will be working with a new Republican partner on farm policy this year. Last week, Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran (R) reclaimed the post of top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Kansas Senator Pat Roberts (R) had said he intended to stay as ranking member and was prepared to force a vote challenging Cochran, who outranks him in seniority. But at a brief caucus of the committee Republicans, Roberts moved a motion in favor of Cochran.

New Leadership Team Announced for the House Agriculture Committee

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas has named Steve King (R-IA) as chairman of the agriculture subcommittee on department operations, oversight, and nutrition.  The subcommittee has jurisdiction over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), nutrition, and consumer programs.  Chairman Lucas also tapped Representative Austin Scott (R-GA) to lead the horticulture, research, biotechnology, and foreign agriculture subcommittee.

FDA Requests Comments on Allergen Thresholds

In December 2012, FDA asked for information to help it conduct a risk assessment to establish regulatory thresholds for major food allergens. Undeclared major food allergens continue to be one of the two principal causes of reportable food incidents, typically leading to Class I recalls.  As acknowledged in the notice, the “establishment of regulatory thresholds or action levels for major food allergens would help [FDA] determine whether, or what type of, enforcement action is appropriate when specific problems are identified.”

FDA’s notice suggests a variety of ways that threshold establishment could be helpful. Thresholds would help the agency establish a standard for approving exemptions from allergen declarations and would help the industry perform hazard analyses required by FSMA. However, the most immediate and tangible benefits could be realized in the context of enforcement.  This point is more clearly recognized in FDA’s accompanying release (“If safe thresholds can be established, the FDA could more effectively determine the appropriate corrective action to unintentional allergen contamination issues…[and] better respond to situations where undeclared allergens are found in foods.”)  The release also asserts that the absence of thresholds might be unnecessarily constraining consumer choice.

FDA’s notice hints at the “significant advances in both scientific tools and data resource related to food allergens” that have taken place in the six years since the agency’s threshold working group issued a report summarizing its evaluation of approaches for establishing thresholds.

NAMA, along with other food industry representatives, is part of an allergen threshold working group.

New Lead Scientist for Soft Wheat Quality Lab

Byung-Kee Baik, Ph.D. has taken the position of lead scientist at USDA’s ARS Soft Wheat Quality Lab in Wooster, Ohio. Dr. Baik received his B.S. and M.S. in agronomy from Korea University and his Ph.D. in food science from Washington State University (WSU). Dr. Baik directed the WSU Wheat Quality Program where he evaluated end-use quality of breeding lines and contributed to the release of seven wheat varieties from WSU’s winter and spring wheat breeding programs. Dr. Baik will join the team at Wooster in February and will be onboard for the 59th Annual Soft Wheat Quality Research Review meeting March 19 and 20, 2013.

Study Finds Potential Decline in U.S. Childhood Obesity Rates

A recent study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that obesity rates among small children may finally be on the decline after more than tripling in the United States over the past 30 years. Researchers from CDC looked at data from 1998 to 2010 on 27.5 million children aged two to four. While the rate of obesity rose from around 13 percent in 1998 to more than 15 percent in 2003, it fell to 14.94 percent in 2012.  While the decline is modest, researchers believe that the findings signal a change in direction.

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