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Food Safety rules are complicated, need study

Food Safety rules are complicated, need study

Sweeping changes in federal food safety law under the Food Safety Modernization Act won’t happen right away, yet the message sent to farmers and agricultural business owners in the Central Valley this month was to become familiar with the proposed rules now.

“These proposed rules are mammoth in size and complexity. We’re just scratching the surface as to what they might mean and how they would impact growers, both practically and economically,” said Josh Rolph of the California Farm Bureau Federation Federal Policy Division. “We are analyzing the rule along with the American Farm Bureau Federation so that we can more fully understand the direction the Food and Drug Administration is taking.”

Nationwide Agribusiness hosted several workshops on the Food Safety Modernization Act in the Central Valley last week, including in Stockton at the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation office. Paul Stevenson, a Nationwide Agribusiness risk management consultant, provided an overview of the law to about 20 growers and business owners.

“I strongly encourage folks to get started and make plans. There ought to be somebody (in your company or farm) designated to look at different sections of the law and figure out what pertains to you,” Stevenson said. “You can’t wait until the final rules are out. It’s time to think more seriously about it; it’s time to get more educated about it.”

The act, signed into law by President Obama in 2011, aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it, Stevenson noted.

Two proposed regulations intended to help implement the act were unveiled in January by the FDA. The first proposed rule would require food manufacturing facilities to develop written food safety plans for preventing foodborne illness and to have plans for correcting any problems. The rule would apply to food to be sold in the U.S., whether produced at a foreign or domestic facility. The FDA proposed that manufacturers be in compliance with the new rules one year after they become final, but said small businesses would be given additional time.

The second proposed rule sets standards for what the FDA described as “identified routes of microbial contamination of produce,” including agricultural water; biological soil amendments of animal origin; health and hygiene; domesticated and wild animals; and equipment, tools and buildings.

Congress exempted farms that sell food valued at less than $25,000 a year. Food grown for personal or on-farm consumption is also exempted, as is produce rarely consumed raw, such as potatoes. A partial exemption would be allowed for farms that sell directly to consumers, as well as for food sales that average less than $500,000 per year for the last three years. Those who qualify for a partial exemption would have a label on the product or a poster at the point of sale that includes the address of the farm.

“(The Act) gives the FDA broader reach and authority and gives them the opportunity to look at what we are doing in our businesses and impose stronger regulations,” Stevenson said.

Douglas Mattes, director and safety consultant for Agricultural Production Safety, a Linden-based company that works with growers and businesses to develop food safety and other programs, said those with programs in place from systems such as Global GAP, SQF and Primus GFS are basically doing what will be required under the Food Safety Modernization Act.

“The government has come in with a whole new set of things, but if you really look at them, they are what you are doing already but just worded differently,” Mattes said.

He added that even if a farm is officially exempt from the act, processors and buyers may still require the same food safety protocols. Walnut grower Karen Carr of Linden called product safety a top priority, but added she is also concerned about what happens with a product once it leaves her operation.

“No farmer out there is going to intentionally harm their product, but we lose control the minute that it leaves our farm,” she said.

Carr, whose family farm already has a food safety program in place, said she intends to get started on learning more about the Food Safety Modernization Act.

“The workshop was my first real look at the act, so I’m just getting involved,” she said. “There’s just a lot of things to look at and I think getting on the FDA website and getting in and learning more is a good first step.”

While the workshop offered an overview of the Food Safety Modernization Act and the proposed rules, the unanswerable “elephant in the room” was cost. According to Rolph, the FDA estimates the rules will cost farms anywhere from $5,000 to $30,000, depending on size.

“One of our interests in commenting is understanding how close or far the FDA is in understanding the true economic cost to growers,” Rolph said.

He added that final rules are not expected to be ready until next year, and then there will be a multi-year phase-in that will vary depending on the size of the farm.

“Working closely with the county Farm Bureaus, CFBF will help growers understand the proposal and meet with counties to get feedback on impacts of the rule. The more input we receive, the stronger our official comments will be to help shape the final rule that FDA releases,” Rolph said. “In addition, FDA will hold listening sessions in California that growers should plan to attend once the schedule is announced.”

- Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.

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