Revised Produce Safety Rule: A Closer Look at a Daunting Task
We have just finished reviewing the revised Produce Safety Rule issued today by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as part of its effort to implement federal food safety laws under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). We applaud the FDA for the work done on this complex issue as it symbolizes progress towards implementing new laws to improve the safety of our food. The LGMA is a strong supporter of FSMA and the stringent enforcement of these laws for all farmers.
The LGMA was one of many who submitted comments to this law. On several points, our comments asked for assurances that federal food safety laws were strengthened even further. We have also advocated that required food safety practices be science-based, that they utilize the most current research and that they are practical to implement in the fast-paced produce industry.
For the most part, it appears that FDA has considered these requests. We must all keep in mind that FDA is struggling to respond to the needs of a number of different groups, including farmers of all kinds – organic, conventional, large, small, domestic and international – as well as responding to the concerns of environmental groups and consumer advocates. FDA is striving not to disrupt either the critical business operations or the existing food safety practices of farmers and companies, many of whom are already setting standards of excellence for food safety. At the same time, they are charged with bringing all food producers up to a basic standard of safety. Ultimately, the laws they implement should actually improve food safety and not just increase costs. The task is indeed daunting.
After our initial review, we do believe the new proposed rules have been improved and that they address many of the concerns expressed by farmers and consumers. However, it has also become apparent to us that many of the revisions in this new proposal will have little impact on the leafy greens industry in California and Arizona. This is primarily because our own mandatory food safety program requires more stringent food safety practices on leafy greens farms than what are contained in the new proposed Produce Safety Rule. .
Following is a brief overview what the primary changes to the rule that most directly impact the LGMA:
One of the items of concern by many commenters dealt with the seven-day testing requirement for surface waters used in irrigation, which were largely criticized as being excessive and far too costly. Under the new proposal, farmers will now have to conduct a water quality assessment, which includes 20 tests of a water system that must meet certain microbial conditions. This is being used as an indicator of base-line water quality and after establishing this, farms must test a minimum of five times a year. Proposed testing of groundwater was also scaled back. The LGMA feels this is a change that is reasonable. However, the new requirements for water testing under FSMA are below what is required by the LGMA. Our program requires monthly testing for both surface and groundwater irrigation water sources.
When it comes to the use of manure as a soil amendment, the FDA has backed off quite a bit on the original provisions which required a 9 month interval between the application of manure planting of a crop – a new approach will be developed over time based on ongoing research in this area. Advocates of organic agriculture felt this was unreasonable for organic farmers in many part of the country and that there was not adequate science to support the requirement. The LGMA program does not allow for the use of unprocessed or non-composted manure in the farming of leafy greens at all as we do not believe this is a safe practice. Our program does allow for the use compost – which is also a very common method of fertilizer application among LGMA members who are organic producers. FDA has also recognized the safety of this practice and has reduced some of the limitations on compost applications in an attempt to encourage this much safer alternative for organic farmers.
Definitions and Exemptions:
FDA has taken the logical and appropriate step of redefining “Farm” and “Mixed Use Facility” in a way that allows for product now owned by a company to be handled, stored and packed without making the whole enterprise subject to the other laws under the Preventative Practices rule. They have also redefined ‘harvest’ in a way that the activities during harvest (i.e., putting produce in bags, trimming leaves, etc.) are not considered processing steps. This is good news for the leafy greens community because many such practices are conducted in the field as part of the harvest rather than in a processing facility.
The LGMA remains opposed on principle to other portions of the law that allow for exemptions from federal laws for small farms. We do not believe any size farm should be exempt from laws designed to protect consumers and save lives. The new rules actually expand the number of farms that will now be exempt under FSMA.
We have taken this opportunity to update a document we maintain that provides a side-by-side comparison between the LGMA’s required food safety practices and those proposed in FSMA. The LGMA will continue to review this information and will provide public comment to the new proposed rules as needed.