Commentary: Farmers’ expertise matters in review of food-safety rules


Issue Date: July 24, 2013
By Josh Rolph
Josh Rolph
The Food Safety Modernization Act provided the Food and Drug Administration with the authority for the first time to create preventive measures that begin on the farm. A draft of those measures is now open for review.
Photo/Lisa Lieberman

California farmers have the opportunity to influence two critical areas of new federal food safety law. Enacted in January 2011, the Food Safety Modernization Act, or FSMA, sought to expand the food safety authority of the Food and Drug Administration to prevent foodborne illness.

The FDA is now seeking public comment for two of the most significant parts of the law: proposed rules governing the growing, harvesting, packing and holding of produce, and governing food processing facilities. By submitting a comment to the FDA, you can be extremely effective in shaping these proposals before they are finalized and enforced as the law of the land.

The enactment of the FSMA came after a string of food contamination outbreaks, recalls and, in some cases, illnesses and even deaths. As a result, Congress developed a law that not only provided the FDA with more authority in the event of an outbreak but, for the first time, created preventive measures that would begin on the farm.

If you were to read the legislative language of the FSMA, you would find that Congress did not spell out exactly what those preventive measures would look like in practice. Instead, the law offered a few guidelines to the FDA and asked that the agency develop those guidelines into specific, on-the-ground rules. Two years later, the FDA released the proposed rules.

When Congress wrote what amounted to a blank check to the FDA to come up with measures to prevent contamination of the food supply, the reaction from fruit, vegetable and nut growers varied. On one hand, there was relief from producers who believed the days of being unfairly penalized for the unsafe practices of a few were ending. On the other hand, farmers worried about the impact more regulations would have on their business and way of life.

Now that the proposed regulations in two critical areas of FSMA are available for public comment, the California Farm Bureau Federation is gathering input from our diverse membership to enhance the perspective we share in our official comments to the FDA. Because of our status as the largest state for fruit, vegetable and nut production, I expect the FDA will take a close look at the public comments received from California.

In the rule, the FDA estimates that the cost to farms will average nearly $5,000 for very small farms, $13,000 for small farms and $30,000 for large farms. But some in the House of Representatives disagree with these estimates, and included language in the recently passed House version of the farm bill that would postpone the deadline for comments until after the FDA conducts a more thorough cost analysis. The chances of that language being included in the final law are slim, but it does reflect some of the opposition to these rules.

The FSMA does include some exemptions for certain crops, the smallest farms and those involved in direct sales. All dairy, livestock and grains are exempted from the requirements of the law, for example. Furthermore, a farm of a covered crop that earns $25,000 or less in revenue is exempt from the rule's requirements; so is food consumed on the farm.

Partial exemptions will apply to local farm sales or those making less than $500,000 in food sales. Under the partial exemption rule proposal, labeling requirements would apply.

To provide more information and perspective about the impact of the FSMA, Ag Alert® will publish a series of articles highlighting the proposed produce-safety and processing rules. Reporters will go into the field to hear the perspectives on the proposed rules from California farmers, and report their findings.

Beginning with the next issue on Aug. 7, Ag Alert plans five news stories that examine the complexities of the Food Safety Modernization Act. The first four articles will cover specific provisions of the produce safety rule: biological soil amendments, domesticated and wild animals, agricultural water, workers, and equipment. The fifth story will discuss the standards for processing. Each story will be identified with the "Regulating Food Safety" icon you see on this page, and the entire series will be archived online at www.agalert.com.

I encourage you to follow the food safety series closely. If you have an opinion to share, please send your thoughts to me. Your opinions and expertise matter and will help to shape the official comments CFBF will file with the FDA. And if you have highly specialized or lengthy comments on the proposed regulations, I encourage you to submit your comments directly to the FDA by the Sept. 16 deadline.

For more information about the FSMA, including instructions on how to comment, see the FDA website at http://1.usa.gov/YjWT2o.

(Josh Rolph is director of international trade, farm policy, taxation and plant health for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at jrolph@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.