In preparation for this issue, our editorial team dug into the meaning of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). As with any legislation that passes Congress and is signed by the President, it is only the beginning. Before the law will have legs to stand on, rulemaking must take place. This is where we often hear the saying the “devil’s in the details.” The broad language of legislation can be twisted for good or bad in the rulemaking process. While this is a process that has yet to happen, a number of items became clear to me in gathering information for this special issue.
Food Safety Is Everyone’s Responsibility. There’s been a lot of debate about small growers being exempted from the FSMA. While some smaller growers cheered the exemption given under the Tester Amendment, it might not be the panacea they first thought. There are several stipulations to the rule that will make some small growers accountable to the FSMA. Growers cannot sell through distributors and be exempt and sales must be within a 275-mile radius. If FDA suspects a small farm is the source of a problem, the exemption will be withdrawn. And, the list goes on.
Some people say this exemption could even be viewed as a negative stigma by buyers. The very fact the grower is exempt from food safety rules might be interpreted that his or her produce could be suspect.
Up Front Cooperation From FDA. Growers — large and small — are unified in the fact there is plenty of government regulation in today’s environment. So, here we go with another round of rules under the FSMA. That has to give one pause, but I am hearing optimism from some quarters FDA has learned hard lessons from past foodborne illness outbreaks. FDA has been much more proactive in outreach to growers and industry in developing new rules. Lest we forget, the agency already has been developing a produce food safety rule over the past couple of years that would have gone into place, FSMA or not. In this process, I am told FDA officials have employed a much more collaborative spirit in rulemaking. Let’s hope that this will continue as the FSMA is developed.
We Must Harmonize. You can find the biggest area of agreement from the grower community in the desire to harmonize food safety audits. Many growers face multiple audits to satisfy buyers. These inspections are duplicative and very expensive to growers. For years, growers have pushed for a single standard for food safety that takes into account particular concerns for different crops. If constructed well, the FSMA could be a stepping stone in this direction. It is long overdue.
How Do We Pay For It? With a $14 trillion federal deficit hanging over heads, the American public elected budget hawks and sent them to Washington, DC in November. The FSMA comes with an estimated $1.4 billion price tag over five years. While that seems like small potatoes compared to $14 trillion, there is simply no money to pay for this program without deficit spending unless big cuts are made somewhere else. This law demands more inspectors and inspections, both for domestic produce and imported, to give it real teeth. The FSMA gives no guidance on how to pay for these new inspectors. It is easy to sign a law, but I guess the devil’s in the details.