Ag Leaders Question FDA on Food Safety

4/27/2013 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Even though Pennsylvania ag leaders got a chance to meet with federal officials on proposed food safety regulations on April 19, many ended up leaving the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture headquarters with more questions than answers.

“I think it was a good meeting. Obviously it would be nice to be able to come away with a sense of promise of changes,” said Bill Troxell, executive secretary of the Pennsylvania Vegetable Growers Association, one of several farm organizations represented at the roughly four-hour meeting with Food and Drug Administration officials from its Philadelphia district office.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture organized the meeting as a way for producer groups to hear from FDA officials on proposed food safety regulations, which were released in January and include preventive food safety measures that would apply mostly to processors and food manufacturers, with a separate rule covering produce.

FDA held three public hearings on the proposed regulations, the last of which was March 27 in Portland, Ore. The only hearing on the East Coast was Feb. 28 in Washington.

“We just thought it would be very useful to have a forum such as this for the various industry stakeholders to have a place to gain information, exchange ideas, give us guidance on what we should be commenting on during the formal comment period,” said Jay Howes, deputy secretary of the state Department of Agriculture.

The proposed regulations were released two years after President Barack Obama signed the Food Safety and Modernization Act in 2011. Last week, FDA announced it was extending the formal comment period on the proposed rules 120 days from the original May 16 deadline.

FDA estimates the new food safety regulations could cost farmers more than $459 million a year to implement, but would prevent 1.75 million new cases of foodborne illnesses a year, saving $1.04 billion in associated costs.

And while most people at the meeting agreed that food safety is a top priority, they said that when it comes to the proposed produce rule, the “devil is in the details.”

Lee Showalter, food safety manager for Rice Fruit Co. in Gardners, Pa., questioned what impact the produce rule would have on fruit growers, who are part of a low-risk industry since no foodborne illness outbreaks have been attributed to tree fruit.

“There is no difference in the provision when it comes to varying risks between produce,” Showalter said.

Frequent testing of water, which FDA claims is needed because it can be a potential carrier of foodborne illness pathogens, he said, could be costly since many fruit growers depend on multiple water sources for their orchards. He also said water treatment could create problems with applying sprays to control disease and insects.

Others questioned which farmers would be exempt from the new rule.

As it reads now, the rule wouldn’t apply to produce for personal or on-farm consumption, and farmers with less than $25,000 in annual food sales would also be exempt.

Farmers with less than $500,000 in sales over three years, of which more than half of their customers consist of restaurants or retail establishments up to 275 miles away from the farm would also be partially exempt from the produce rule.

But Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, or PASA, said many farmers could exceed the exemption since the government takes into account total food sales, meaning if a farmer grows only a few acres of produce but also raises some dairy or beef cattle, the sales from those animals could put the farm over the $500,000 threshold and they would have to abide by the new rule even if their produce sales are small.

“That means the $500,000 rule isn’t even meaningful,” he said.

Another issue is manure application, which the rule specifies must be done at least nine months before vegetable harvest, compared with many existing good agricultural practice, or GAP, programs, which allow for a shorter interval, three months in most cases.

Troxell said the longer application interval would create problems on some farms and could ruin crop rotation schedules.

“So, if a crop is harvested in the beginning of July, manure would have to be applied by October of the previous year. In some cases, that’s before the existing crop is actually harvested,” Troxell said.

“I think we have a good bit of homework to do to come up with some comments for ways to make it more workable for our growers,” he said.

Jeff Stoltzfus, adult ag educator for the Eastern Lancaster County School District, said many of the Plain Sect producers he works with who sell produce to large supermarket chains, such as Whole Foods, already meet a lot of the requirements of the produce rule since they are already GAP certified.

But he said it’s not clear what impact the rule will have on producers selling produce at local auctions. He’s also concerned with the amount of recordkeeping that will be required of producers.

“Our guys are one-man operations. The farmer is doing everything. He’s worried about marketing. He’s worried about plant health,” Stoltzfus said. “Keeping food safety records is not something that’s going to fit well in all that he’s doing, compared to a larger operation that can put someone in charge of that.

“I think the management burden that will be put on our farmers is going to be significant,” he said.

Snyder said he was pleased with the way FDA Philadelphia district officials Kirk Sooter and Anne E. Johnson answered questions and interacted with the group about its concerns.

But he also said he worries about the long-term costs of the proposed regulations on small farms and the unintended consequences they may cause.

“All of ag is going to be affected by this. It’s going to lead to more consolidation and economic challenges for not only small, but also midsize farms,” he said.

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