(This article by Tom Karst, national editor of The Packer, was first published Oct. 19, 2014, and is reposted here with his permission.)
ANAHEIM, CA—The last word on food safety regulations for the produce industry won’t be written next year, even though the Food and Drug and Administration (FDA) has committed to publish final versions of the produce safety and preventive controls rule for food facilities next year.
FDA officials speaking at an Oct. 17 Fresh Summit workshop on food safety regulations said the process of refining and educating growers and industry will continue for years and they urged industry leaders to continue their dialogue with the agency.
FDA has been working with the produce industry in a collaborative way on food safety since the late 1990s, said Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine for FDA. He credited both the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and other industry groups in that process.
Even though some of the final food safety regulations will be on the books next year, Taylor said it won’t be all over then. “We’ve got to see this as a long process,” he said. Taylor urged further dialogue and input from industry on the recently issued supplemental rules that are open for comment until mid-December.
Taylor said the recently issued supplemental rules addressed microbial standards for agricultural water, clarification of operations subject to the produce safety rule, relaxation of raw manure rules and changes in qualified exemptions from the produce safety rule.
The exemption issue is controversial, he said, with some groups favoring no exemptions and others favoring more exemptions. FDA has found room for some exemptions , but he said smaller producers not subject to the rule are still subject to existing adulteration standards in food law.
“At the end of the day, all growers are accountable for food safety,” Taylor said. “The question is, how do we get there?”
Looking ahead toward implementation of the food safety regulations, Taylor said that the agency is committed to education before regulation.
“Most people want to make (food safe), what they need is clarity about what is expected,” he said. Taylor noted that many leaders attending the standing-room-only session have contributed to produce safety standards already in place.
Other growers need help to achieve acceptable food safety standards, and Taylor said FDA is committed to help those growers as part of the agency’s compliance strategy.
The process, aided by a recent cooperative agreement between FDA and state departments of agriculture, will be a long-term project that will extend a decade or longer, he said.
At the same time FDA and states will collaborate on public oversight, Taylor said that most of the verification and accountability of new food safety rules will come from private sources such as third-party audits.
Meshing that private oversight with public oversight will be an important test of making the produce safety rules effective, he said.
Samir Assar, director of the produce safety staff at FDA, addressed changes in water testing language and raw manure regulations in the recently released supplemental rulemaking.
PMA’s Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer, and Jim Gorny, vice president for food safety and technology, moderated the panel including FDA officials and industry panelists Walter Ram, vice president of food safety, The Giumarra Companies, Los Angeles, CA; Courtney Parker, vice president of salad quality and global food safety, Chiquita Fresh Express, Salinas, CA, and Mike Villaneva, technical director, California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, Sacramento, CA.
In the question-and-answer period, Parker asked FDA about the science behind the mandate to test agricultural water for generic E. coli.
Assar said that generic E. coli is a good indicator for fecal contamination, but he said the agency was open to science that would suggest another standard that could be more appropriate.
Villaneva said there is grower confusion about its new testing scheme for water, and Assar acknowledged that growers will need technical assistance and guidance to perform the water tests.
Ram questioned how FDA will evaluate the significance of a positive Listeria test at a distribution center for produce, and Assar said the context of the find is important.
“It could lead to the conclusion there is a public health issue,” he said.
Parker asked if FDA would be investing in research projects on produce safety such as the proper science necessary for the application of raw manure. Taylor suggested that FDA will have little budget to support research projects, but he added that the agency could be engaged in helping to advise the direction of research projects funded by USDA or other agencies.© Food Safety News