Food safety rules challenge farmers on several fronts

Wisconsin State Farmer
An irrigation system waters crops in Coloma, in the Central Sands region. Farm advocates have raised concerns over the lack of knowledge of farm water use by FDA regulators.

Phoenix, AZ — Equal treatment of domestic and foreign growers, the need for extensive education, training and technical assistance and agricultural water provisions are among farmers’ top concerns as they implement the Food Safety Modernization Act’s produce rules, according to Bob Ebhart, senior policy and science advisor with the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

Ebhart spoke to farmers and ranchers from across the country during the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 2017 Annual Convention & IDEAg Trade Show.

Signed into law in January 2011, FSMA focuses on the prevention of foodborne illness including risk-based “preventative controls,” and provides new enforcement authorities such as the ability to ensure the safety of imported foods and to regulate produce. The law directs the creation of an integrated food-safety system in partnership with state and local authorities.

As straightforward as Congress’ objectives may have been in crafting FSMA, the rules are exceptionally complex.

“There’s a whole lot of detail in these rules. It’s going to be very difficult to figure out where you fit and what’s expected of you,” cautioned Ebhart. “There is a logic associated with it; It’s just not a farmer’s logic.”

Detailing NASDA’s concerns about the water-related FSMA produce rules, Ebhart noted how little FDA regulators know about how farmers actually use water.

“Over this past year, FDA asked us to give them examples of the way farmers use water, and in almost every instance they said, ‘We didn’t know about that,’” he said. “The complexity of how water gets to a crop is kind of blowing their minds, but they should have known all of this before they wrote the rule.”

Under the rules pertaining to water use and produce, FDA assumes water is contaminated, rather than allowing “clean” water a pass. The agency also “requires a frequency of testing we think could be less restrictive for some waters and says farmers can use only one method to test water—a method most environmental labs don’t use,” Ebhart continued.

Questioning how FDA was going to make sure foreign produce suppliers are held to the same standards as domestic growers, Ebhart asked how the agency was going to guarantee that the water used to grow fruit imported from Vietnam is as clean as that used in domestically grown fruit.

Farm advocates question how FDA regulators will determine water quality used on produce imported into the U.S.

New review

With FSMA’s produce rules raising more questions than providing answers in many cases, NASDA is in the early stages of piloting an On-Farm Readiness Review. Funded by FDA through cooperative grants, the OFRR will be a voluntary program under which farmers can have a third-party inspector visit their farm to determine how they would fare during a FSMA-related inspection.

The group is also developing an OFRR  tool kit that will include a detailed checklist that works the way a farmer would—from pre-harvest to post-harvest—and focuses on water, worker training, sanitation and wildlife.

“It’s also going to be an opportunity for us to learn from people who are way ahead of the curve. From them we can get better ideas about what should be part of our educational program,” Ebhart explained.