FDA’s new proposed food safety and water rule is no slam dunk

– Commentary –

“It’s like pulling the carpet out from under us.” , reacted like this.

The original compliance date was January 2022, but the Food and Drug Administration has delayed it.

Because agricultural water can be a major pathway for pathogens, the Food Safety Modernization Act produce ag-water regulations initially established microbial quality standards for agricultural water, including irrigation water.

These original requirements were for water that comes in contact with certain agricultural products, namely fruits and vegetables such as strawberries and lettuce, which are usually eaten raw. Crops that are cooked before eating are not affected by this, as cooking involves a pasteurization step that heats the food to a temperature sufficient to kill pathogens. Includes juice.

The FDA clarified that the proposed rule would only apply when agricultural water comes in contact with the harvestable parts of crops. It does not apply to water applied during or after harvest. The water must meet certain microbial standards.

As part of this, FDA notes it is important to note that there may be other water uses that require microbial compliance, such as water used for fertilizers and other crop treatments. I’m here.

Feedback the FDA received on the first version was that these microbial standards, including numerical standards for pre-harvest microbial water quality, may be too complex for producers to understand, translate, and implement. .

In response to these concerns, the FDA has looked at ways to simplify water standards to achieve a balance that ensures consumer safety while reducing the regulatory burden on producers where necessary.

“The FDA clearly listened and made the changes many asked for,” Ramkrishnan Balasubramania, executive director of Florida Organic Growers, told a webinar for growers. The frequency of water testing is gone from the beginning,” he said. “This is most welcome.”

In short, if finalized, the revised rule would replace pre-harvest microbial quality standards and testing requirements with a requirement for producers to conduct pre-harvest agricultural water assessments annually, This does not necessarily include inspection. The potential for known or reasonably foreseeable hazards to be introduced into harvestable parts of produce or food contact surfaces.

As part of the pre-harvest agricultural water assessment, produce farms covered by the rule must assess certain factors such as the location of the farm’s water sources, the method of irrigating the crops, and the frequency of irrigating the crops. Environmental conditions such as heavy rain can affect water quality and threaten safety.

The proposed rule includes information on what farmers need to assess and what to do if they encounter problems or change their work. For example, what should they do if they switch from well water to surface water such as a stream, lake or river? It also includes methods for dealing with these issues.

Balasubramania, meanwhile, said growers will need some guidance, tools and even funding to comply with the regulations. The FDA says it plans to help with that.

By way of brief background, the Act’s Produce Safety Rule establishes, for the first time, science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption. As such, this rule is part of the agency’s ongoing efforts to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law in 2011.

not a slam dunk
Not everyone thinks the FDA’s decision to ask producers to assess and fix the problem is a silver bullet.

“One of the biggest problems so far is that there are no final rules about what the water rules will be. Professor Keith Schneider said. of Florida. “The idea of ​​whether it’s better or not ultimately depends on what the final verdict will be.”

Still, he thinks farmers would prefer not to have to test their water, but the new scheme would make them risk assessors.

“It’s much easier to take water samples than it is to learn risk assessment,” he said. “The bigger question now is whether individuals can perform adequate risk assessments to determine how to handle irrigation water. I think you will feel

Some warn that this will require a long learning curve.

As to how important it is to get this right, Schneider says that not doing so “could end up making people sick, and nobody wants that.”

“Conversely, if we put too many restrictions in place, we might discourage farmers and push production outside the borders of the United States, which we also don’t want.”

Click here to listen to the Florida Organic Growers podcast on FDA’s agricultural water regulations.

“One producer’s self-assessment may not be as thorough as another, leaving buyers wondering who to trust,” said Brandon Rouzen, executive director of the West Washington Agricultural Association. There is a possibility that I will think, “I am worried.

But at the same time, he appreciates the FDA’s desire to keep things flexible and not take a one-size-fits-all approach, especially given how diverse agriculture is across the country.

“It’s good to have some leeway for local conditions,” he said. “But food safety cannot be compromised.”

At public hearings, some producers and agricultural associations took a completely different course, saying that removing required inspections was a drawback and that the rule should be more strongly encouraged or even mandated under certain circumstances. I said there is.

On the other hand, all sections of the Food Safety Enhancement Act have been finalized, except for the section dealing with agricultural water.

The delay is not surprising, as water is critical to both agriculture and food safety. As Schneider was quick to point out, “water has the greatest potential to turn small problems into big ones.”

What do growers do?
It has been a long road of about five years to bring the Pre-Harvest Agricultural Water Regulations to their current state (proposed, subsequently revised and not yet finalized). It’s not there yet, especially since the FDA says the actual compliance date has not yet been set.

However, an agency spokesperson said the FDA is moving toward finalizing the proposed rule. Estimated publication date is he October 2023.

The spokesperson also said stakeholders will have the opportunity to comment on the compliance date, but will have the opportunity to comment on the proposed rule when it is announced. Given how long it took, some food safety experts don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.

Meanwhile, the FDA will exercise what the agency calls “enforcement discretion” until a final new rule is passed.

Until then, producers are encouraged to follow the first proposed rule based on microbial standards.

“It’s still in place and everyone should be doing what they need to do,” Schneider said. “But the biggest ambiguity right now is whether and how the FDA will do it.”

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