Food Safety Rules Raise Questions, Concerns

1/26/2013 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

You’ll need a cup of coffee, and a big one at that, to get through the hundreds and hundreds of pages of proposed food safety regulations the government is asking the public to comment on by May 16.

That’s because the devil is truly in the details when it comes to their potential impact on regular, everyday farms and businesses.

The proposed food safety regulations were released Jan. 4 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as part of the larger Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law in 2011 and is considered the most sweeping reform of food safety regulations in 70 years.

The changes include a set of rules mainly targeting food processors, manufacturers and packers, requiring facilities to write and maintain approved food safety plans that document various process controls, sanitation practices and potential food recalls.

Another set of rules targets produce handling on farms, including new requirements for handling irrigation water, compost and animals.

FDA estimates that it will cost $472 million for the food industry to comply with the new rules, which will cover an estimated 97,600 domestic and 109,200 foreign facilities.

The law also gives FDA the right to inspect farms and businesses.

Certain farms and businesses would be exempt. For instance, farms that do less than $25,000 in sales would be exempt from the produce rule and farms that do less than $500,000 a year would get a partial exemption.

But the partial exemption will apply only if farmers can document that at least half of their annual sales are direct to consumers (farmers markets or CSAs would likely qualify), restaurants or retail establishments no more than 275 miles away.

Luke LaBorde, associate professor of food science at Penn State University, studied the new rules in depth and wrote a detailed summary of the potential impact they could have on farmers and businesses throughout the region.

He said a lot of the things the rules attempt to address are already covered by practices the industry has put in place to comply with third-party audits now required of some growers.

“From what I’ve seen, this is very basic stuff. What some of the commercial buyers are requiring, this is very basic,” he said.

Under the produce rule, for instance, growers would have to check their source of irrigation water before each growing season for potential pathogens and would have to document hygienic practices on the farm.

“Anybody who is selling to a wholesaler, supermarket, they introduced standards long before FDA popped their head out,” he said.

But the FDA rules go further. They also address how farmers use manure and compost, and when they will be able to graze animals on land where produce is grown.

The proposed rules establish a nine-month interval between manure applications and harvest in areas where manure may come into contact with fresh produce and a 45-day interval for applying composted manure.

Along with that, growers would have to take measures to prevent hazards to covered produce from working animals if the animals are used in a growing area where a crop has been planted, such as horse paths separate from a field.

When it comes to testing irrigation water, LaBorde said some growers could run into problems, especially with E. coli.

LaBorde led a study of water sources from some 30 farms two summers ago, mainly in Lancaster County, where he found that E. coli was prevalent in a lot of creeks and other water sources that farmers draw water from.

But just because there’s E. coli in the water, he said, doesn’t tell the whole story since different kinds of E. coli are found in the intestinal tract of animals and humans.

“The thing about E. coli, it’s a poor predictor of pathogens,” he said. “We found very few pathogens in our study, but lots of E. coli.”

The bottom line, according to LaBorde, is that the new rules will require producers to do a lot more paperwork to prove they are using hygienic practices, whether it’s handling the produce or growing it safely.

“They are already doing most of this stuff. It’s just documenting it,” he said.

Jeff Stoltzfus, adult ag educator in the Eastern Lancaster County School District who does outreach to Plain Sect producers, said he has questions about how the regulations will affect local produce auctions, as well as the impact on applying manure on fields where produce is grown.

“There weren’t a lot of surprises overall,” Stoltzfus said of the proposed produce rule.

Many growers he works with already undergo third-party auditing, especially if they sell to stores such as Wegmans or Giant, or distributors such as Four Seasons Produce.

“What the buyers are requiring probably has more impact than what the regulations do,” he said. “Guys that are very small go through food safety training because buyers tell them they have to. I guess it almost makes the regulations, in that sense, secondary.

“For a guy who’s selling at his roadside stand, or direct to restaurant or CSA, (it’s) probably not a big impact. But if you’re selling to Giant, selling to Wegmans, it’s going to increase costs,” Stoltzfus said.

Farmer Mike Tabor, who grows fruits and vegetables on 60 acres just west of Chambersburg in Fulton County, said his farm is likely exempt from most of the proposed rules since his sales are under $250,000 a year and most of that is from the farmers markets he sells at in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

But the fact that he’ll have to keep paperwork on his sales, and in the event of a possible outbreak his exemptions could be revoked, has Tabor believing he’s increasingly under the watch of the government.

“No one is exempt. We all have to keep records. We all have to be aware that at any time, any of us could be questioned, especially in the event of an outbreak,” he said.

“I think the concept of exemption, unless that changes, is not a concept any farmer should be embracing,” he said.

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