FDA pledges ‘significant changes’ to food-safety rules in response to producers’ concerns

While grain producers across the Midwest have been anxiously awaiting a new farm bill, produce farmers are just as anxious about the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act — the largest reform of the nation’s food safety laws in 70 years. The act itself was signed into law in 2011, but exactly how it will impact the Midwest’s producers won’t be known until final FDA rules are approved.

New safety rules proposed by the federal agency in 2013 are now being revisited, as the result of backlash from the nation’s farmers and widespread concerns that the rules would burden small producers and even put some out of business.
Michael Taylor, the deputy commissioner of foods for the FDA, has promised that “significant changes in the rules will now be made. The revisions will be released in June 2014. The FDA must have new food-safety rules in place by June 2015.
The difficulty in developing new rules is not surprising given the balance that the FDA has been asked to strike, notes John Dillard of OFW Law, a firm that specializes in federal agriculture law. The agency must develop regulations that have enough teeth to ensure safe food, but not so onerous that they bite the hands that feed consumers — the nation’s food growers and processors.
“State legislators should be concerned about the FSMA regulations because it will disproportionately impact small producers,” Dillard says. “Compliance with FSMA will impact the cost of production; small farmers are less able to absorb these costs.”
Under the law, farms with less than $500,000 in sales of all food are exempt. However, under the rules proposed by the FDA in 2013, that exemption does not apply if a farmer sells through a food hub or combines to sell its product with other farmers. In that case, the producer would be classified as a processor, thus requiring registration with the FDA and compliance with its standards for produce safety — which cover everything from worker health and hygiene to equipment sanitation, water testing, compost use, control of wild animals, traceability and record keeping.
Brian Mitchell, president of the grower-owned cooperative Michigan Cherry Growers, says his members’ concerns include new sanitation requirements that could outlaw the use of wooden picking and packing crates; the exclusion of wild animals from fields; weekly testing of water supplies; and the registration requirement for farms of any size that commingle products.
Organic growers have raised concerns, too, about potential new rules that could conflict with their own standards of practice — for example, the amount of time between manure application and harvest — and that would add a new layer of regulations on low-risk, value-added processing such as fermenting and pickling.
Tim Slawinski of the Michigan Department of Agriculture worries that the FDA rules, if not done right, could undermine some successful food-safety programs already under way. One of these is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s voluntary Good Agricultural Practices and Good Handling Practices program, under which fruit and vegetable growers verify the safety of their operations.
“The FSMA regulations must complement these current efforts,” Slawinski says.
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