State agriculture officials will not be inspecting Oregon farms for compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act anytime soon under a resolution unanimously approved last week by the Oregon State Board of Agriculture. The resolution, adopted June 8 at the board’s meeting in John Day, OR, states that since the Act’s produce safety rule will have “tremendous impacts” on Oregon agriculture, which has not previously been regulated with respect to food safety, it was recommending that the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) consider applying for on-farm inspection funds if and when more information becomes available.

Apple orchard in Oregon
An apple orchard near Hood River, OR, with Mount Hood in the distance.
Meanwhile, the 10-member board recommended that ODA  focus on outreach and education to farmers who will soon need to comply with the rule, which was mandated by Congress in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). In one of the “whereas” sections of the resolution, the board acknowledged that ODA has received “a variety of feedback from stakeholders” about what the department’s role should be in on-farm inspections. “Many stakeholders prefer for ODA to gain the authority to do produce safety inspections in Oregon, while others prefer to leave this responsibility to the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration). Those in support of ODA-led inspections have indicated they believe ODA understands agriculture and has a good track record of successfully regulating Oregon farms in other areas,” the resolution states. The department has already asked FDA for grant funds to pay for FSMA-related outreach, education and technical assistance to farmers and growers across the Beaver State. Those functions, plus an inventory of Oregon farms covered by the produce safety rule, come under “Competition A” of FDA funding for FSMA implementation on the state level, while “Competition B” would fund state-level on-farm inspections.

FDA intends to fund up to $19 million for fiscal year 2016 in support of this grant program and has stated that the agency will make up to 55 awards not to exceed $1.1 million in total direct and indirect costs per award.

If Oregon’s application for “Competition A” funding is approved, it would provide approximately $700,000 per year for five years, according to Stephanie Page, director of ODA’s Food Safety and Animal Health Programs. The money would help pay for three new ODA staff members to oversee major produce-growing areas of the state. “After conversations with stakeholders and others, it just seemed like it was a good idea to apply for Competition A to fund outreach and technical assistance. The deadline for next round of funding would be March of next year,” Page told Food Safety News.

Oregon grape harvest
Harvest time in an Oregon vineyard.
The board’s resolution pointed out that ODA will either need statutory authority to conduct on-farm FSMA compliance inspections or conduct them under FDA authority as commissioned officials. Page said that while ODA currently has the authority to go on farms in certain situations, to conduct ongoing FSMA-related inspections would require specific legislation to be introduced during the 2017 session in Salem. “We would be jumping the gun to apply for inspection funds now without having the legislature have the conversations,” she explained. In a column published this past fall, ODA Director Katy Coba asked Oregon growers to let Page know what role they wanted the department to play regarding on-farm FSMA compliance inspections. Coba noted that while full implementation of the produce safety rule was still a couple of years away, “ODA does not want to wait to hear about its role.” She also stated that there was one “overriding issue yet to be resolved,” namely money. “FSMA implementation will not be paid for by Oregon’s General Fund or ODA fees levied against our ag industry,” Coba wrote, adding that, in her position as chair of the Food Regulation and Nutrition Committee of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA), “We have made it very clear that the states will not do any FSMA-related work — no outreach, no education, no technical assistance, no inspections — unless the federal government pays for it.” Page described the comments she has received from Oregon growers as “very diverse” and coming from small and large farms and everybody in between. “Definitely some of the feedback was, ‘We want ODA to be the lead on these inspections. We trust ODA to do a better job; they understand Oregon agriculture better.’ On the other side, we’ve heard that it would be duplicative and to have us go out would not prevent FDA from inspecting separately,” she said.
Oregon apples and pears
Oregon apples and pears for sale at a roadside stand.
While both state and federal agencies now have the authority to inspect a food facility in Oregon, Page said, “I don’t think FDA is excited about going out and doing produce inspections if ODA is going to do it.” Most U.S. produce growers, packers, processors or sellers will be subject to the FSMA produce safety rule, with staggered compliance deadlines ranging from two to four years, depending on the size of the operation. However, there are exemptions — and qualified exemptions — from the rule, such as those farms having an average of less than $25,000 in annual produce sales during the previous three years. Oregon is one of only a few states which are not currently seeking FDA grant funds to pay for on-farm FSMA compliance inspections.

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