Assurance of safe, wholesome food is a responsibility of all of us in the food chain, whether producer, regulator or consumer. When a foodborne illness is identified, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) members realize that the job of providing safe food to the American public isn’t done.
In January 2011, historic legislation known as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) became the law of the land. As a result, another step toward preventing foodborne outbreaks has occurred. FDA is in the process of writing and publishing rules, conducting outreach sessions and listening to comments. Soon the agency will switch to analyzing the comments and fashioning rewritten rules to further implement FSMA.
Proponents are pushing to get the rules in place as quickly as possible. Some have even gone to court to seek assurance that the rules will be final as soon as possible. Proponents are on all sides of the issue – industry, food safety advocates, sister regulatory agencies, the general public.
NASDA members, who often are the state regulatory component on food safety, have spent countless hours poring over the draft rules and listening to the public and to producers, particularly the small- and medium-sized farms in each of their states. We strongly believe that final rules need to be in place as soon as possible; however, we also are equally concerned that FDA get the rules right.
When a bipartisan effort in Congress passed FSMA, one of the salient points moving many members of Congress toward passage was a concern about imported food. FDA has published several rules to establish “preventive” controls for human foods, including manufactured food and raw agriculture products (fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, and some seeds and sprouts). The agency has also published rules to regulate the import of food, manufactured or raw, and to establish a mechanism for third-party verification of the safety of the food products available to consumers in the United States.
Two concerns are primary to NASDA members: FDA has little experience inspecting farms, and, while anyone seeking to sell produce in the U.S. will have to adhere to the “Produce Safety” and the “Preventive Control” rules, producers are questioning whether a process that allows food brokers to verify food coming into the U.S. is a level playing field.
The current draft rules make important steps toward prevention; however, some aspects of the rules indicate a lack of knowledge about farming. In the process of implementing the rules, producers will need to learn from FDA and other food-safety experts about the “preventive controls” that are available to enhance the production of safe food.
At the same time, however, FDA needs to recognize legitimate farming practices – merely changing farming practices will likely drive some producers out of the marketplace rather than assure safer food. FDA has provided some flexibility for producers; however, many producers believe they do not go far enough or focus on the right things.
FDA has exhibited an open mind regarding the rules by meeting with many groups during the comment period. Since the first drafts of the several rules out for comment need considerable revision, NASDA members seek assurances that FDA will publish second proposed rule drafts for public comment before making the rules final.
With good intentions by advocates desiring to get the rules in place, the courts have mandated June 2015 as the date when FDA must have final rules published. While NASDA supports getting the law fully implemented as quickly as is reasonably possible, the members unanimously voted at their annual meeting to request Congress to re-set the clock to assure adequate time for a second public review of the rules implementing this historic legislation. To move forward simply by the clock risks FDA publishing rules that producers do not understand or rules that simply miss the boat.
NASDA seeks this action in the belief that food safety will be better advanced by getting the rules right and allowing for better understanding by producers and therefore a higher degree of voluntary compliance. We see this path as a better way forward than mandating a publication date certain when the rules must be final. This will also allow time for serious attention to establishing a workable federal, state and local integrated food-safety system. This concurrent dialogue is needed if we are to have an integrated system is in place to implement the rules, once they are final.© Food Safety News