Proposed Food Safety Act Rules Raise Questions

E-newsletter Issue #114 | May 9, 2013

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 made sweeping changes to how America ensures its food supply is safe. What remains to be seen is just how the Food and Drug Administration will enact those changes.

“The act brings the Food and Drug Administration, working with a wide range of public and private partners, (together) to build a new system of food safety oversight,” said Francis Boyd, senior vice president of Meyers & Associates, a Washington-based government relations firm. Boyd was one of the featured speakers on a recent CSG webinar, “Food Safety Modernization Act: Impacts for Farmers, Producers and States.”

The new system is “one focused on applying more comprehensively than ever in the past the best available science and good common sense—hopefully—to prevent the problems that make people sick,” Boyd said.

The FDA website says it is promulgating five new rules to shore up the country’s food safety net. Two of those rules—one concerning preventive controls for human food and the other on produce safety—have been released for public comment.

The rules for human food would require most facilities to have a written plan evaluating hazards that are likely to occur, what is being done to minimize the risks, how the facility is being monitored and what actions would be taken if a problem occurs. Produce rules include standards for agricultural water, the hygiene of farm workers, manure or other soil additives, animals that may get into growing fields and the sanitation of equipment, tools and buildings.

Robert Guenther is senior vice president of public policy at the United Fresh Produce Association, a trade association representing produce companies and their partners. Guenther said his members are concerned about a list in the produce rule detailing which commodities are included in the regulations and which ones are not.

The exempted list primarily contains produce that is rarely consumed raw, Guenther said. It includes things such as artichokes, black-eyed peas, peanuts and sweet corn. Produce covered by the new rules includes items ranging from almonds and herbs to bananas and bamboo shoots.

“The citrus industry was interested, why are we on the covered produce list when we’ve not really had any food safety outbreaks in fresh citrus,” Guenther said. “The apple industry had the same concerns. … We all support food safety, but we are being held to the same standards as some of the commodities that have been most susceptible to food safety outbreaks, like lettuce, cantaloupes, tomatoes and other commodities.”

Guenther said his members also are concerned about the exemptions included in the proposed rules. According to the FDA, farms are exempt if their sales average for the past three years is less than $500,000 and if their sales to consumers exceed their sales to others in the same time period. Farms that average $25,000 or less in annual food sales for the past three years also are exempt.

“I would say we oppose the concept that producers of any size should be exempt from the basic rule,” Guenther said. “There is no science-based standard or proof that says that depending upon the size of your farm, you’re more safe than any other farm.

“We are also concerned about produce commodities that are wholly exempt from the rule. We think that bugs don’t really know if they’re on a big farm or a small farm, what commodity they are on. We feel that this necessarily has to be addressed in the proposed rule as well.”

Roger Noonan, president of the farm advocacy group New England Farmers, believes the proposed rules will put small farmers out of business.

“The FDA has estimated the costs to comply with the produce rule alone for a small farm at about $13,000 (annually),” Noonan said. “I calculated under the ag water requirements for my farm what it would cost me under the proposed rule and it was around $7,000. I was already halfway there just on ag water. FDA admits they do not have a real good handle on what the costs are for this.”

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, in a post on The White House Blog just before the Food Safety Modernization Act was signed, said the act is critical to the health and safety of all the country’s citizens.

“What’s new is the recognition that, for all the strengths of the American food system, a breakdown at any one point on the farm-to-table spectrum can cause catastrophic harm to the health of consumers and great disruption and economic loss to the food industry,” she wrote. “So, we need to look at the food system as a whole, be clear about the food safety responsibility of all its participants and strengthen accountability for prevention throughout the entire food system—domestically and internationally.”

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