Fresh produce industry convenes as major new food safety regs emerge
By Ed Maixner
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 29, 2015 -- United Fresh, representing the nation's farmers, processors, shippers, marketers, food services and others in the fruit and vegetables sector, convened here this week, shortly after a mountain of long anticipated food safety rules began pouring from the Food and Drug Administration. This fall marks the start of at least a three-year game plan to make prevention of contamination, disease outbreaks and poisonings a national priority over correcting those sorts of ill results after the fact.
Several speakers at Tuesday's gathering, the second-day of the three-day conference, provided details about the new regulations being promulgated now as a result of the nearly five-year-old Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
The first two major FSMA rules have now been finalized after extended public comments periods and an extra round of revisions that responded to a catalog of farmer and industry demands. There are regulations on Preventive Controls for Human Food and a parallel one for animal feeds and they will be implemented at a staggered pace by late 2018. Most food processing operations will have to comply a year from now; very small farms and marketers of some low-risk products get three years.
The FDA expects to wrap up the next major rule, focused on the production of fresh produce, by the end of October. Rules covering food imports, sanitation in shipping, and other areas are on the way. For the produce rule, farmers demanded several crucial revisions in requirements for irrigation water, wash plant water and use of manure (an essential material for organic farmers) as fertilizer. FDA has already promised several revisions in their favor, but interest is acute in just how much and what kind of water purity testing will be required.
For farmers, various exemptions -- relating to size and type of operations and products that might be processed and sold - all apply. To begin with, FDA estimates more than 70,000 U.S. farms that sell only food products directly to consumers via farmers markets, roadside stands and community supported agriculture programs, for example, will be exempt from registering as a food facility.
One of Tuesday's speakers, Priva Ratham, an FDA supervisor in consumer safety, suggests farmers and other first look to see if the new rules apply to their operations, then look at the exemptions that may apply, before burrowing into the regulatory details. Much of the work between FDA, state regulators and producers has been to provide clarity on the requirements, she said. The agency and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA), for example, completed an initial framework a year ago for collaboration in FSMA implementation.
Another presenter, Bob Ehardt, NASDA science adviser, described a long trail ahead to piece together that cooperation. Only 20 states, for example, assign the policing of food safety to their agriculture department; the other 30 give that role to health departments, or other agencies. And, he says, while the health agencies do test food products and enforce food safety regulations, “state health departments are not looking at [the new FSMA rules] as an important part of their programs,” so an FDA-state mesh is a ways off.
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