04/16/10 — Agriculture secretary visits Mt. Olive Pickle Co.

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Agriculture secretary visits Mt. Olive Pickle Co.

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on April 16, 2010 1:46 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and the Commissioner's Circle visited the Mt. Olive Pickle Co. Thursday to take a tour and talk about food safety.

The circle members -- a group of farmers from across the state -- meet with Troxler several times a year to advise him on agribusiness issues. The discussion at this meeting turned to a bill in the federal Senate regarding food safety measures that Troxler's office is closely monitoring.

"This next FDA bill that's in the Senate right now could change a lot of the things the FDA has done over time," Troxler said.

Senate bill 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, would expand the authority of the Secretary of Health and Human Services to regulate food, including by authorizing the secretary to suspend the registration of a food facility. A similar bill known as the Food Safety and Tracking Improvement Act (Senate bill S.425) would amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to address the way food is inspected and create a system that would trace food items back to their place of origin.

If the proposed legislation becomes law, the changes could affect how states and the federal government oversee food safety inspections and regulations. At the moment, states oversee 90 percent of food safety inspections. A lot of people are "biting their nails" over what a change to that policy could mean, Troxler said.

The commissioner said he does not want the federal government to take control of all food safety areas, but that the Department of Agriculture does hope to receive federal help in a few instances, such as support for lab facilities that test foods for contamination.

But Troxler said officials are also committed to preserving farmers' well-being and crop markets through consumer education about food safety and should take a common sense approach to dealing with contamination scares. The concern over contaminated tomatoes cost tomato growers more than $200 million, he noted.

"When you see the results and the damage it did to agriculture, I think we all understand food safety is going to be part of our lives," Troxler said.

The key to the issue is traceability, being able to track a product to its place of origin to be able to determine the source of contamination.

But for most producers selling products in the state, such as farmers with small roadside stands, few changes would be necessary.

"People don't want a policy where one size fits all," Troxler said.

Mt. Olive Pickle Co. spokesperson Lynn Williams said the company's customers are very aware of food safety issues, but that incidents such as the jalapeno pepper scare several years ago did not affect the company's sales because their jalapeno products, like the rest of their products, are contained in an acidic solution.

The company produces both "fresh pack" pickles that are cucumbers washed and packed directly into the jars from the fields, but Mount Olive Pickle also produces fermented pickle products. When customers learn about the open vats where the cucumbers rest in vinegar and special bacteria cultures, it often inspires questions about the safety of that procedure, Ms. Williams said.

"We have to reassure consumers that just like you wash fresh produce, we're going to wash it before we pack it," she said.

The Mount Olive Pickle Co. is the second best-selling brand of pickles in the United States, producing about 100 million jars of pickles and peppers every year. The company has 500 year-round employees and hires about 300 more during the June harvest season.

Afterward, the Commissioner's Circle stopped by Mount Olive College for a luncheon and information session about the college's agribusiness and agri-education programs.