The draft guidance for free range chickens coming out today might also have a calming effect on nervous fruit and vegetable growers, says Mike Taylor, who runs the food side of the business at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine. Laying hens on smaller farms that roam outside are among the last to fall under FDA’s four-year-old Egg Safety Rule, which was designed specifically to cut down on the all-too-common presence of Salmonella Enteritidis (SE) in table eggs. Farms that raise free range and organic chickens get their first look today at FDA’s draft guidance for their unique operations. “I think it puts folks at ease a bit,” Taylor told Food Safety News. Earlier this year, produce growers generated enough Congressional heartburn to get FDA to extend the comment period for the new produce safety rule into the Fall. The United Fresh Produce Association and several regional commodity associations also joined in asking for the extra time, even though it is estimated that almost 80 percent of the nation’s  growers will be exempt from the produce rule. Farms that “pasture their hens,” as Taylor calls it, need to keep SE out of their poultry houses. Just like the big poultry barns, they need to be concerned about wild birds, rodents and pests getting into their houses. To understand how these farms might craft a regulatory approach that would fit the free range and organic segment, FDA visited farms on its own and with officials from USDA’s National Organic Program. “In effect, we were on a fact-finding mission to see for ourselves how these farms operate and to better understand the unique challenges these producers face,” Taylor said in his personal blog going out today. “We gained a better understanding of these challenges and used this knowledge to develop a draft guidance document specifically addressing the challenges and concerns we observed.” “We strive not just to be regulators, but to work cooperatively with industry as fellow problem solvers,” he added. Taylor says producers are concerned about their ability to meet the requirements of the Egg Safety Rule and their “discerning questions” caused FDA to rethink its approach and focus on what’s reasonable. “We think we’ve come up with practical guidance,” Taylor told Food Safety News. John F. Sheehan, director of plant and dairy food safety for FDA, said complying with the egg rule shouldn’t require much more labor intensity than these producers already experience. Egg producers with fewer than 3,000 laying hens and those who sell all of their eggs directly to consumers are exempt from the Egg Safety Rule. The campaign to increase the safety of the 80 billion table eggs Americans consume annualy began in 2009 when the Rule was published. It first applied in 2010 to more than 500 U.S. egg producers with 50,000 or more laying hens. If the Egg Safety Rule is successful, it will annually prevent 30 deaths and an estimated 79,000 cases of food borne illnesses caused by  consumption of eggs contaminated with the bacterium Salmonella Enteritidis.

Shortly after large producers came under the rule, a nationwide SE outbreak was traced back to two Iowa farms. The two egg producers recalled more than half a billion eggs, making it the largest recall of table eggs in U.S. history.

After that, FDA enlisted several states to help it step up enforcement of the Egg Rule, which has since been applied to smaller producers.