The public and industry had the opportunity this week to hear FDA representatives talk about a proposed rule regarding how to make water used in the growing of fresh produce safer.

The session with the Food and Drug Administration officials included about 30 minutes for comments from the audience, which consisted of three-minutes each from industry spokespeople.

During one portion of the five-hour session a representative from the Center for Science in the Public Interest provided comments about public welfare issues concerning the proposed water safety rule. That portion of the session also included a presentation by a representative of Western Growers, which is a group of produce growers in western states. 

One thing the government speakers and other commenters had in common was the fact that the ag water rule is complicated. They all also said the proposed rule is more flexible than the one-size-fits-all proposal previously put forward by the Food and Drug Administration.

The agency has been working on the rule regarding agricultural water requirements under the Produce Rule since 2013. The rule is one of the mandates included in the federal Food Safety and Modernization Act of 2011. It covers water safety issues for fresh fruits and vegetables. It has a special section for the production of sprouts that is already in place.

Provisions of the proposed water rule do not include most small farmers, if their annual income generated by their sales of fresh produce is less than $25,000. Many of those growers use organic methods.

Frank Yiannas, who has been the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food policy and response since December of 2018, opened the public session by saying one thing that every other speaker reiterated during the event. He said the FDA has given special care to work with industry to come up with a set of water safety requirements to make the rule flexible enough to meet grower’s individual situations while maintaining stringent enough terms to provide utmost public health and safety.

Sonia Salas, the representative from Western Growers, said several times during her remarks that industry should not be solely responsible for the safety of fresh produce. She said entities including neighbors in the agricultural industry should be among those held accountable in a collaborative approach to the safety of fresh produce.

The FDA has been discussing the situation with federal and state agencies that have jurisdiction over such operations.

Sarah Sorscher, the spokeswoman for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) had a different take on the matter of safe produce. She said while the government and industry are working hard to find compromises that will meet safety needs, “the ball is in industry’s court,” partly because it is known from the history of foodborne illness outbreaks that fresh produce is a key contributor to health dangers in the United States. She also stressed the need for the public to be confident in the safety of fresh produce because of the health benefits of eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.

Areas of agreement from government, industry spokespeople and the CSPI included the need for clarity in the proposed rule. They also all said that simple water testing is not the answer to the question of how to make produce safer. While some water testing is mentioned in the proposed rule, it is listed only as a voluntary part of risk assessment activities.

All of the speakers and commenters said science-based approaches should be front and center for the agricultural water rule.

Several speakers, including Sorscher and Samir Assar, who is director of the Division of Produce Safety in the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, discussed the significance of the uses of land adjacent to produce growing fields.

Outbreak investigations in recent years have included the proximity of feedlots to surface water used for irrigation — especially in areas where open canals are used — as a key factor in the contamination of fresh produce, especially romaine lettuce.

Salas said mitigating such risks should not be solely the responsibility of produce growers who do not have any access to or authority over animal operations.

Another group of people that will need help in implementing the proposed rule are members of the National Sustainable Agricultural Coalition, which is a grass roots organization of mostly smaller growers, a number of whom operate organic operations.

Eric Deeble of the sustainable group said most of the group’s members are glad to see flexibility in the proposed rule. There are concerns, though. He said it it simple on its face but as you dig into it it becomes more and more complicated. Deeble said there needs to be a lot of education and outreach from authorities so that the rule can be implemented by growers.

All of the speakers were on the same page in terms of the complexity of the rule. Government spokespeople promised that the FDA would work with growers and state entities that will be enforcing the rule so that it will be workable while ensuring improved public health.

The comment period on the proposed agricultural water rule is open until April 3.

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