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Produce Food Safety Rule

Posted in Food Policy,Food Safety,Our Blog on March 22, 2019

The Food Safety Modernization Act passed into federal law more than 7 years ago. It was a top-to-bottom rework of our food safety system. The overarching notion: shift the way that food safety works in the US from reaction to prevention. To that end, the federal government has spent the better part of a decade rulemaking, planning, and preparing – like the Produce Food Safety Rule.

Now, we’re finally in the first part of the FMSA rollout. That means a lot of work for pretty much everyone engaged in the business of growing or making food. One of the provisions in the FMSA is a produce safety rule that calls for, amongst other things, routine inspections of those who produce the produce.

A Long Time Coming

As reported by Food Navigator and Food Dive, the process of rolling out those inspections has gone a bit slower than expected. Now, in the spring of 2019, the FDA will start them for the largest farms growing fruit and veggies for domestic or international sale

The structure of the rollout resembles that for other aspects of the FMSA. First, the largest businesses will be subject to the rule. Small farms won’t be subject to inspections probing their compliance with the new rule until 2020. And it’ll be years yet before the FDA starts inspections for farm water.

But it will address imported foods:

“At that time, U.S. produce farmers, and those in countries that export to the United States, had never been subject to this level of federal food safety oversight and, quite frankly, we at FDA had a lot to learn about the unique challenges farmers face every day,” Gottlieb said in the Feb. 7 statement. “The idea of implementing preventive measures to head off food safety problems was a new and modern approach to regulation that promised to bring significant benefits for consumers.”

FSMA – Addressing Current Food Issues?

Given that the FMSA was passed into law back in 2011, it makes sense that it wasn’t written as a reaction to recent events of food poisoning. As some of you probably already know, recent outbreaks have been traced back to farm water tainted with microbes that can cause foodborne illness. The best known of those cases was probably the contamination of lettuce in Yuma, Arizona last winter.

That incident might be seen as cause for urgency. The government hasn’t systematically tested water for contaminants on farms before, however. Accordingly, it’s going to take a while to figure out how such testing is going to be done and to get the infrastructure into place to actually do  it.

Farmers can get ready for the new requirements by signing up for an on-farm readiness review, or OFRR. It’s pretty much what you would expect: farmers sign up for someone from their state’s agriculture department or extension to come by their farm and give them the lowdown on what they need to do to get ready for the coming inspections. According to Food Navigator and Food Dive, some 350 farmers have already signed up for this program.

Farmer Training

According to Food Navigator, funds for farmer training through the State Produce Implementation Cooperative Agreement. $85 million went to different state-level health departments to help contact, educate, and onboard farmers to the program. The website reports that one of objectives of the program is to build out a system in which the bulk of inspections are farmed out to state inspectors who are familiar with the terrain; some inspections will be carried out by the FDA, but they’ll mostly be focused on states which haven’t opted into the cooperative agreement.

Hopefully, all those resources have put the farmers in a good place for what’s coming. The FDA will start inspections this spring, as we said above, and they’ll be looking into compliance with regulations that deal with all sorts of different aspects of growing produce. Farmers will need to make sure that their buildings and equipment are up to date. They’ll have to watch out for what their animals are doing, where they’re wandering, and what’s being done with their waste. There are specific rules for how workers should be trained and what hygiene practices they need to follow.

If you’re growing sprouts, which are particularly susceptible to foodborne illness and thus considered to be a high-risk food, there’s a whole separate set of rules that you need to get in line with.  If you’re a sprout grower and this is news to you, you can find the guidelines on the FDA website.

The rules at play here are complex, and even with the assistance of state and local health departments, it’s likely to be a difficult rollout process. That’s why the FDA is starting with the largest farms first; they have the capital and the capacity to effect the changes necessary and to give the federal agency an idea of how the rollout process is going to go. Hopefully, it goes smoothly, and they’ll learn what they need to before the changes come into place for smaller farmers in the near future.

By our lights, on-site produce inspections are long overdue. This is an important step in shifting our food safety system from one that’s reactive to one that’s preventative. Hopefully, it’ll drive down the number of food-safety related incidents and lead to more trust in the food that people eat.

The real holy grail, however, is active testing of water for bacterial load and for other contaminants. That’s something that’s desperately needed and still a few years away. Some farms have already committed to doing these inspections themselves; the association of lettuce growers in California has their own requirements, for example, that call for this amongst a host of other things.

That’s good, but we need everyone to do it. Here at Make Food Safe, the debuting of new regulations and testing regimes are a bit like Christmas; they’re steps towards a world in which we have a better idea of what’s going on with our food. We can’t wait until it’s not just the produce but the water that’s getting inspected.

By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)