Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and his name is Mike Taylor. Produce farmers and processors got an early Christmas present on Dec. 19 when Taylor, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, made it official. The produce safety and preventive control rules to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) won’t go into effect as written. Instead, Taylor promised “significant changes.” His announcement was a strategic victory for three powerful agricultural organizations — the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA), the United Fresh Produce Association (UFPA), and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). At last September’s annual meeting of state agricultural directors, the idea was hatched not to blow up the rule-making process but to simply ask FDA to redraft the rules based on comments and Taylor’s own extensive farm tour. This was a decidedly different strategy than one advanced earlier in the year by congressional Republicans, which was basically to use a Farm Bill amendment to indefinitely hold off FSMA enactment. “We believe that this decision to change  these proposed rules — in response to the careful consideration of many people involved in supplying our food — is critical to fulfilling our commitment to getting them right,” wrote Taylor on his personal blog after the announcement. That comment echoed what the state ag directors, UFPA and NSAC had been saying. Ferd Hoefner, NSAC’s policy director, put it this way: “The modernization of food safety rules is a major undertaking, and it is more important to get it right than to meet any arbitrary deadlines for completion of the task.” Taylor’s announcement left Hoefner “cautiously optimistic” that the rules can be reworked into a clearer and more practical approach. He says redrafting is needed in four areas: water quality standards and testing, standards for using raw manure and compost, provisions affecting so-called mixed-use facilities (farms that engage in value-added agriculture), and due process considerations for farms eligible for qualified exemptions from FSMA requirements. “We are in full agreement with FDA that these sections of the proposed rules need a new approach and major changes,” Hoefner added. He says other areas that need attention are:

  • Farm operations for both food safety and the protection of wildlife habitat
  • Exclusion of direct marketing operations from food facility registration
  • Revised cost-benefit analysis
  • More details on federal-state interface
  • Expand the scope of the Environmental Impact Statement to put hard numbers on farms that will be regulated as food processing facilities

No question about it, a lot remains to get done in 2014. In the meantime, however, produce growers can stop chewing on Tums and Rolaids for a while. Mike Taylor felt your pain and is going to go about this a bit differently. “We always knew that the rules governing farmers would be complex, in part because of the incredible diversity in the size and nature of farming operations, “ Taylor noted. “The standards we must set must accommodate that diversity and be feasible to implement.” So, produce farmers and processors got an early Christmas present from Washington, D.C., and everybody seriously working on the two rules remains dedicated to FSMA enforcement. Not a bad way to end the year.