In mid-April, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg announced that the comment period for the Produce Safety Rule, one of a number of proposals set forth as implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act continues, would be extended by another 120 days. Originally, the comment period was to end on May 16; it will now end on September 16.
“The fresh produce industry has long supported mandatory, enforceable, commodity-specific food safety practices based on the best available science,” said Tom Stenzel, CEO of United Fresh Produce Association, one of several organizations that sent a letter to Hamburg on April 11 calling for an extension. “An additional comment period is necessary to ensure that these rules are effective, efficient, and serve the interests of the entire supply chain and our consumers.”
Since the Produce Safety Rule was first proposed earlier this year, FDA has hosted a series of listening sessions across the country, where growers large and small, and other interested parties, could learn more about what’s in the proposed rule and voice their concerns. One such hearing was held on April 30 at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster. A sizable crowd, made up mostly of small to very small growers (many of which considered themselves organic producers), heard comments from FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor, as well as Samir Assar and Joy Johanson, who are part of FDA’s Produce Safety Staff and helped craft several of the key points in the rules.
“We have to rely on the role you play as a producer,” said Taylor in addressing the audience. “The rules must be flexible and risk-based, and must also consider the needs of smaller growing operations with less resources.” Following Taylor, Assar and Johanson went into detail on what crops are covered in the rule, the likely compliance dates (which vary based on the size and income of the operation), and the major focus areas covered under the rule (water, animal-based soil amendments, worker hygiene, equipment, and farm animals). Much of this information was covered in American/Western Fruit Grower’s March 2013 cover story, and in a webinar presented earlier this year by the Produce Marketing Association (www.pma.com).
Wide Range Of Concerns
Following the remarks from Taylor, Assar, and Johanson, audience members had a chance to ask questions, voice their concerns, or share stories of their experiences on the farm. The FDA panel members answered questions in as much detail as they could, and encouraged attendees to make formal comments as well. With the understanding that much of the room was made up of small farms, a number of themes emerged in the line of questions.
• New standards vs. organic standards. Several organic growers questioned whether the new rules would supersede the practices they normally follow in organic production, particularly when it comes to the use of manure.
• Water testing. In answering concerns about time frames and methods, Taylor noted that this part of the rule has been left intentionally vague, to allow for industry input.
• Compliance time frame and scope of coverage as it relates to farm size and income. “We wanted to be able to exempt farms from the rules,” said Taylor. However, Taylor also emphasized that a farm is not exempt if a food-related illness is traced back to the farm. “Our strategy needs to involve helping people comply,” Taylor said. “But regardless of the exemption, everyone is a part of the food safety system.
The last audience question came from someone who mentioned the upcoming USDA census, and pointed out that “older” farmers outnumber younger ones. “These regulations might deter new, young farmers from getting into the industry. This needs to be considered as the rules are being made.”
During FDA’s Food Safety Listening Session in Ohio, both Michael Taylor and Samir Assar emphasized that FDA is serious when it comes to seeking comments and input from the industry. “Getting the regulations right is the first and most critical step in this process,” said Taylor.
There are three ways you can comment on the proposed rule:
• Comment electronically by going to http://1.usa.gov/12EuSG4
• Fax written comments to 301-827-6870
• Mail written comments to Division of Dockets Management (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1601, Rockville, MD 20852.