The Food and Drug Administration is proposing to drop microbial testing requirements for the water that produce growers use to irrigate their crops and instead have them conduct comprehensive pre-harvest assessments of the water.

The microbial testing requirements were a key feature of FDA's 2015 Produce Safety Rule. 

Farms that identify problems in their water assessments would have up to a year to implement mitigation measures, except in the case of "known or reasonably foreseeable hazards related to animal activity, the application of biological soil amendments of animal origin, or the presence of untreated or improperly treated human waste on adjacent or nearby lands." In those situations, farms would be required to address the contamination "promptly," FDA said. 

Animal grazing or the presence of livestock and wildlife on land adjacent to produce farms or their water sources has been a major cause of foodborne outbreaks.

“There have been far too many foodborne illness outbreaks possibly linked to pre-harvest agricultural water in recent years, including water coming from lands nearby produce farms,” said Frank Yiannas, FDA’s deputy commissioner for food policy and response.

The proposal released Thursday will be published in the Federal Register on Monday, kicking off a 120-day comment period.

“The proposed revisions are intended to address stakeholder concerns about complexity and practical implementation challenges while protecting public health,” FDA said in a news release.

Under the proposal, farms would have to conduct annual assessments of their pre-harvest agricultural water “to identify any conditions likely to introduce hazards into, or onto, covered produce or food contact surfaces,” FDA said. “Based on these assessments, farms would then determine whether corrective or mitigation measures are reasonably necessary to reduce the potential for contamination.”

Assessments would include “an evaluation of the farm’s water system, agricultural water use practices, crop characteristics, environmental conditions and other relevant factors, such as the results of any testing conducted to inform the assessment,” FDA said.

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Mitigation can include making necessary repairs or allowing more time "between the last direct application of agricultural water and harvest of the covered produce to allow for microbial die-off," the proposal said.

The ag water testing requirements are due to go into effect Jan. 26 for large farms, but FDA said it would be exercising “enforcement discretion” for those requirements “while pursuing another proposed rule to extend the compliance dates for all of the agricultural water requirements in the [Produce Safety Rule] for such covered produce.” That proposal is currently under review by the Office of Management and Budget.

The testing requirement is due to become effective Jan. 26, 2023, for small farms, and Jan, 26, 2024, for very small farms.

FDA stressed that the proposal does not “substantively alter” the regulations for agricultural water used for sprouts, which are already in place, for water used during harvesting, packing, and holding activities, or for treatment of agricultural water.

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