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FDA seeks to simplify farm water use regulations

Issue Date: January 5, 2022
By Christine Souza

Growing food safely has always been a priority on farms and ranches across California, as required by federal standards and inspired by customer demands for high-quality farm products.

Now the U.S. Food & Drug Administration says it is proposing new rules to safeguard the food supply while also simplifying regulations and testing that govern agricultural water use.

The FDA has proposed a revision to Subpart E of the Food Safety Modernization Act. It establishes science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption. The produce safety rule is one of seven major rules that aims to ensure the safety of the food supply. FSMA has been an ongoing process since it became law in 2011.

The update, announced as a proposed rule in the Federal Register on Dec. 2, would change the preharvest agricultural water requirements for covered produce (other than sprouts) under the produce safety rule.

Matthew Viohl, associate director of federal policy at the California Farm Bureau, said he is following the implementation of FSMA on behalf of farmers affected by the produce safety rule.

FDA's proposed rule regarding agricultural water is an attempt to make preharvest testing of water more practical and less complex without risking public health, Viohl said. The requirements are also designed to be adaptable to future advancements in agricultural water quality science.

"The existing standards related to agricultural water are very test-heavy and require affected farmers to test water often," Viohl said. "For years, the feedback from farmers is that the testing is very tedious and may not be that practical."

The rules on agricultural water safety include groundwater and a variety of surface water sources including ponds, rivers, creeks, canals and municipal and water district supplies.

Frank Yiannas, FDA deputy commissioner for food policy and response, said the proposed rule is the latest action taken by the FDA to implement key food-safety provisions.

"If finalized, we're confident this proposal would result in fewer outbreaks in the U.S. related to produce, protecting public health and saving lives," Yiannas said in a statement. "This proposed rule is a monumental step toward further improving the safety of the fruits and vegetables Americans serve their families every day, and the FDA looks forward to engaging with stakeholders on the proposed changes."

Viohl said the FDA's proposed changes are based on stakeholder feedback and intended to make it easier for farmers to comply.

"The intention by the FDA is for these rules to be more flexible and easier for farmers to utilize when they're testing their agricultural water," he said.

The requirements in the proposed rule, if finalized, would replace the preharvest microbial quality criteria and testing requirements in the produce safety rule with requirements for systems-based preharvest agricultural water assessments.

The FDA reported that the assessments would be used to identify conditions that are reasonably likely to "introduce known or reasonably foreseeable hazards into or onto produce or food contact surfaces, and to determine whether corrective or mitigation measures are needed to minimize the risks associated with preharvest agricultural water."

The agency said it is not proposing to change the requirements for harvest and postharvest uses of agricultural water, or the agricultural water requirements for sprouts. Sprouts are subject to specific preharvest agricultural water requirements, and the compliance dates for sprouts requirements have passed.

Agricultural water compliance dates under the existing produce rule were to begin this month. The agency said it intends to exercise enforcement discretion for the agricultural water requirements for covered produce (other than sprouts), while proposing to extend the compliance dates.

The FDA has scheduled the following public meetings to discuss the recently proposed rule: Feb. 14, 8:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. PST and Feb. 25, 5:45 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. PST. More information on how to access the meetings will appear in the Federal Register.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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




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