Biotechnology, quality management, ergonomics issues at top of A.F.I.A.'s list

by Stormy Wylie
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A range of issues affecting the U.S. feed industry, including quality management guidelines, proposed ergonomic standards and biotechnology and food safety are likely to be hot topics of conversation at the American Feed Industry Association's annual convention in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., May 1-3.

The A.F.I.A. board in late March endorsed implementation of its first-ever, quality management guidelines for the feed industry. The new program, which will offer standardized guidelines for creating a quality management system, regardless of company size or products, will be launched during the convention in Chicago.

"The purpose of this landmark action is to ensure consistent delivery of products and services that meet customers' satisfaction," said David Bossman, president of the Arlington, Virginia-based feed association.

Developed by the A.F.I.A.'s Quality Council, the guidelines are applicable to every feed facility in the U.S., including feed mills, pet food plants, ingredient suppliers, equipment manufacturers and other facilities.

Although the guidelines outline requirements for complying with the management system, they do not dictate how they should be applied in individual mills. The guidelines provide each mill with flexibility and independence in implementing the program, according to Mr. Bossman.

"The new guidelines offer the entire feed industry and its supporting industries a tremendous mechanism for obtaining both product and service quality conformity," he said.

A pilot workshop on the guidelines will be conducted next month.

ERGONOMIC QUESTIONS. The A.F.I.A. said it has "numerous unanswered questions" and is concerned over the relevance of a workplace ergonomics standard proposed by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. On March 23, John Ojanen, an A.F.I.A. member who works for Southern States Co-op, was joined by Brian Bursiek, A.F.I.A. director of production, in testifying at an OSHA public hearing in Washington, D.C.

Subsequent hearings are planned April 11-21 in Chicago, April 24-May 3 in Portland, Oregon; and May 8-12 in Washington again. Several members of A.F.I.A.'s Safety & Health Committee are expected to testify.

OSHA in February 1999 released a draft ergonomics standard, the first step in a regulatory process expected to result in an ergonomics standard in the year 2000. The regulation would affect thousands of work sites in grain-based foods, from grain elevators through processing to the point of sale.

OSHA said that more than 647,000 Americans suffer "serious injuries and illnesses" because of work-related musculoskeletal disorders each year, accounting for more than 34% of all lost-workday injuries and illnesses and costing employers from U.S.$15 billion to U.S.$20 billion annually in direct workers' compensation costs.

The draft ergonomics regulation targets manufacturing and manual handling operations where approximately 60% of all lost-workdays occur. Under the draft proposal, general industry employers involved in such operations will automatically be covered by an ergonomics rule.

A.F.I.A.'s Safety and Health Committee said it has exposed over 30 flaws in the draft proposal and has launched an aggressive initiative encouraging industry members to speak out on the highly controversial issue.

A.F.I.A. believes existing medical and scientific data do not support OSHA's action. "Substantial questions remain regarding the degree of ‘significant risk of material impairment of health or functional capacity' posed in the ‘risk factors' cited by OSHA," Mr. Bursiek said. "The degree to which the standard would eliminate or reduce any such risk is extremely questionable."

In February, A.F.I.A. submitted to OSHA a 29-page paper outlining numerous flaws in the proposal and emphasizing its high cost and little or no benefit to the feed industry. Among its comments:

•The feed industry incident rate for injuries resulting from repetitive motion is only 0.12% — insignificant and not warranting regulation.

•Forty-four percent of these types of injuries are misdiagnosed, proving more science is needed to understand the cause-and-effect relationship, and to implement meaningful solutions.

•OSHA's proposed broad definitions for musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) captures 62% of all workplace injuries, failing to identify serious injuries.

•Similarly, OSHA's proposed covered MSDs occur equally among all feed industry job classifications, failing to identify problem areas.

Over 50% of all injuries stem from improper lifting, pushing and pulling, and can be minimized through voluntary back management programs emphasizing proper exercise and lifting techniques. The corrective action for MSD-type injuries involved simple medication (43%) or worker retraining (18%). No solutions were found in 28% of all cases — the problem simply went away and did not recur.

A.F.I.A. said that the cost of compliance with OSHA's proposed standard far exceeds the benefits gained and that resources spent implementing the proposed standard detracts from other more meaningful safety programs.

Mr. Bursiek said OSHA was rushing to conclude an issue that deserves more study. "Instead of investing adequate time for industry, the medical community and labor to register their views, the agency is intent on proceeding with this regulation without full evidence of its necessity or benefit," he said.

SAFE FOOD. A new Food Safety Leadership Plan recently developed by A.F.I.A. to "position the association as both a prominent player and an informational resource on food safety issues related to the feed industry" also will be presented at the A.F.I.A. convention in Chicago during a major seminar on biotechnology.

"The initiative is intended to position A.F.I.A. as a prominent player in all food safety developments related to the feed industry," said A.F.I.A. Vice-President Rex Runyon. "It will also establish us as a key industry informational resource."

The plan, which involves conveying A.F.I.A. positions to the news media, delivering industry's message to consumers and informing state and federal lawmakers, initially addresses agricultural biotechnology. Its framework provides the mechanism for dealing with many other issues as they arise.

The first step in the plan was the development of a major food biotechnology informational packet, addressing such topics as genetically modified products, safety, regulatory requirements, labeling, feed manufacturer impact, producer advantages, consumer benefits and concerns. A section on what other individuals and groups are saying about biotechnology also is included.

The mostly widely used biotech crops — corn and soybeans — are the staple ingredients of the feed industry. Nearly 65% of U.S. corn and most of its soybeans are fed to livestock and poultry. Farmers and consumers are asking many of the same questions about biotech crops, A.F.I.A. said. What are these products? How are they developed? How are they reviewed for safety?

"A.F.I.A. has no greater priority than ensuring consumers of feed and meat, milk and eggs that these products are safe," Mr. Runyon said.

More than 35 animal feeding studies — conducted for market information, not required by regulatory compliance — show that feeds containing biotech ingredients perform just as well as their conventional counterparts, A.F.I.A. said. New, safe technologies that benefit farmers and lower food production costs are supported by the feed industry.

"The industry must remain dynamic," Mr. Runyon said. "New technology is the key to continued economic viability."

The new Food Safety Leadership packet is being distributed to A.F.I.A. membership, other agricultural organizations, news media and key state and federal legislators. Copies also will be available to the public, upon request. The information also is available on the group's website at www.afia.org.

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