The Food Safety Modernization Act, passed in 2011, was the biggest update to food safety laws in more than 70 years and this year growers will finally be subject to routine on-farm inspections under the Food and Drug Administration’s Produce Safety Rule. Many are wondering how the process will work and many questions remain about coordination between state and federal agencies, a shortage of inspectors and questions on whether the standards will be enough to ward off the next outbreak.

In the wake of last year’s romaine lettuce outbreaks, the Food and Drug Administration has now delayed the compliance dates for the water requirements for potential revisions, while the California Leafy Greens Marketing (LGMA) Agreement is also pushing new updates on its own similar requirements for growers. (See related story on page 3.)

Here’s what we know for now: The California Department of Food and Agriculture has responsibility for the inspections and is working on behalf of the FDA.

The inspections will start with large farms — those with $500,000 or more in annual revenue. With no list of farms under this qualification, CDFA found a workaround. The California Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Association had information that could help. The voluntary organization collects pesticide use reports for the Department of Pesticide Regulation. Since the pesticide use information is publicly available upon request, CDFA could access it through Freedom of Information Act requests. Instead, CACASA contracted with CDFA to share the broadest level of information that would meet CDFA’s needs.

The department explained this in a letter mailed to farmers across the state. Also raising some eyebrows was the title of the inspectors: environmental scientist-inspectors. At a time when large regulations like the Sustainable Groundwater Management are coming into effect, this left some farmers worried the inspections would be part of a broader environmental mandate.

CDFA launched an awareness campaign early last year. It offered test runs with “on-farm readiness reviews” in an effort dubbed “educate, then regulate.” Yet large gaps remained in what the CDFA could communicate until November, when the FDA released its detailed guidelines. It is still open for comment, which means the draft guidance is subject to change.

According to almond huller and sheller Ryan Honnette, farmers and processors who maintain good agricultural practices will be ready.

“It doesn’t change the processes that you are already doing. It just means you have to document more of them,” he said, adding that “old schoolers” in the industry will likely hire a service.

He said the approach to the inspections was about risk assessment and mitigation and that inspectors will work with farmers to help them meet the standards, rather than penalize them at the start. Following the confusing early years of FSMA, he said, organizations like CDFA and the Almond Alliance have done a well in “breaking down this whole thing” and explaining it to farmers.

Covering one of the largest and most productive states

The FDA provided the state with funding to develop an inspection office dedicated to FSMA, along with new staff members. Just five inspectors are assigned to California’s 25,000 potential farms. Of those, 12,000 will be subject to the inspections starting in less than two weeks.

“I wouldn’t expect to see an inspector for like a decade,” said Hornette.

When he does, however, that inspector may not test or ask about his water. The almond industry is seeking an exemption from the water requirements due to the kill step in its process for sanitizing almonds.

CDFA also said it will focus first on the crops that experience more frequent and severe outbreaks, such as lettuce, sprouts and spinach. For those crops, LGMA is already mandating at least five government inspections per year and will be collaborating with CDFA more closely on those. LGMA auditors are currently employed by CDFA and licensed by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The water problem

The FDA’s investigations into the two E. coli outbreaks in romaine lettuce last year suggested that strains other than the generic E. coli are coming up in water tests at alarming rates.

LGMA officials believe their requirements would have prevented at least the California outbreak had the grower linked to the contamination been a member. LGMA inspections include regular water testing for generic E. coli. If a spike in that testing shows up, then the inspectors will perform more thorough tests to inspect for specific strains. LGMA is currently working with Western Growers on updating their standards so that the more robust tests can be readily performed in the field.

The more extensive standards for LGMA — in water and other areas — are possible because it covers one specific industry within one specific region, as opposed to the FDA’s broad mandate.

“In most cases,” said LGMA CEO Scott Horsfall, “we go quite a bit further than the produce rule requires.”

This means that everyone who grows leafy greens is “pretty used to government auditors in their fields,” he said.