Produce Growers: Still Time to Comment on Federal Produce Safety Standards

Catharine Daniels, Attorney, OSU Extension Agricultural & Resource Law Program

As the temperatures start to climb, many producers are gearing up for planting season. If you are a farmer who grows, harvests, packs, or holds fruits and vegetables intended for human consumption, you should be aware of the proposed produce safety standards that were released by FDA on January 16, 2013, as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act. The proposed rule could impact your business later this year. The comment period has been extended: originally all comments were due by May 16, 2013, but now with the extension, you have until September 16, 2013 to submit comments. So if you have not had a chance to review and comment on the proposed rule, there is still time.

What does the proposed produce safety rule do? The focus of the proposed rule is foodborne illness prevention. The goal is to now focus on preventing a foodborne illness outbreak rather than reacting to one. Foodborne illness outbreaks are a major concern and produce is often associated with such outbreaks. As a producer, you are responsible for ensuring your product is safe. If you fail to do so, you could face liability.

The proposed rule establishes “science-based standards for growing, harvesting, packing and holding produce on domestic and foreign farms.” To address foodborne illness prevention, the proposed rule identifies seven routes of microbial contamination where prevention is key and sets standards for each:

  • Agricultural Water – The rule proposes requiring all agricultural water to be safe and of adequate sanitary quality for its intended use and to be inspected at the beginning of the growing season to identify conditions that are reasonably likely to introduce pathogens. An alternative to the water requirements may be permitted if the alternative is scientifically established to provide the same amount of protection as the proposed requirement.
  • Biological Soil Amendments of Animal Origin – Types of treatment, methods of application, and time intervals between the application of a biological soil amendment of animal origin and crop harvest are three proposed measures to reduce risk. An alternative to these requirements is also permitted as long as the alternative is scientifically established to provide the same amount of protection as the proposed requirement.
  • Health and Hygiene – The rule proposes farm personnel be required to use hygienic practices, including hand washing and maintaining adequate personal cleanliness.
  • Domesticated and Wild Animals – For domesticated animals, the rule proposes waiting an adequate period between grazing of the animals and harvesting produce from that growing area. If working animals are being used where produce has been planted, the rule requires farms to take measures to prevent pathogens from being introduced onto the produce. For wild animals, the rule requires farms to monitor for significant wild animal intrusion immediately before harvest and as needed during the growing season.
  • Equipment, Tools, and Buildings – Some of the key requirements proposed for equipment and tools includes: using equipment and tools that are of adequate design, construction, and workmanship, inspecting, maintaining, and cleaning all food-contact surfaces of equipment and tools, and storing and maintaining equipment and tools to prevent contamination. Some of the key requirements proposed for buildings includes: requiring buildings to be a suitable size, construction, and design to facilitate maintenance and sanitary operations, buildings must provide sufficient space for placement of equipment and storage of materials, and requiring the plumbing system be properly designed, installed, and maintained.
  • Sprouts – Requirements include: treating seeds before sprouting, testing spent sprout irrigation water for pathogens, and monitoring the growing environment for Listeria species or Listeria monocytogenes.
  • Training – Training would be required for farm personnel would handle produce or food-contact surfaces, and for supervisors.

Who is exempt from the proposed rule? The standards and requirements of the proposed rule will apply to farms that grow, harvest, pack, or hold fruits and vegetables intended for human consumption in its raw or natural state. The rule however, does exempt certain farms. Total exemptions include:

  • Produce that is rarely consumed raw, such as potatoes.
  • Produce that is destined for further processing, such as green beans destined for a canning operation.
  • Produce intended for personal or on-farm consumption.
  • Farms that sell $25,000 or less of food per year.

A farm could also be partially exempt from the rule if the farm meets two requirements:

  1. Food sales average less than $500,000 per year during the last 3 years.
  2. Sales to qualified end-users exceed sales to others during the same period.

For purposes of the second requirement, a qualified end-user is a consumer, restaurant, or retail food establishment. The consumer may be located anywhere, but the restaurant or retail food establishment must be located in the same state as the farm or not more than 275 miles away from the farm.

If your farm does qualify for a partial exemption, then you must comply with certain labeling requirements. If a label is already required on the produce, then the name and business address of the farm where the produce was grown must be included on that label. If a label is not already required, then the name and business address must be displayed at the point of purchase.

Could I lose my exemption status? Yes. FDA may withdraw an exemption if:

  • There is an investigation of a foodborne illness outbreak directly linked to your farm, or
  • FDA determines it is necessary to protect the public health and prevent or mitigate a foodborne illness outbreak based on conduct or conditions associated with your farm.

How soon do I have to start complying with the rule? After the final rule is published, it will become effective within 60 days. Farms would have between two and four years to comply with the rule depending on the value of food their operation sells during the previous three-year period:

  • Businesses selling less than $250,000 per year would have 4 years after the effective date to comply and 6 years to comply with some of the water requirements
  • Businesses selling between $250,000 and $500,000 per year would have 3 years after the effective date to comply and 5 years for some of the water requirements
  • Businesses selling more than $500,00 per year would have 2 years after the effective date to comply and 4 years to comply with some of the water requirements.

The proposed rule is currently open for comments. Comments must be submitted by September 16, 2013 to be considered. For more information on the proposed rule and to submit a comment, visit: http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/FSMA/ucm334114.htm.

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