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Oregon takes a closer look at Food Safety Modernization Act

ODA connects farmers & processors with newly proposed food safety rules

For the first time in perhaps 75 years, sweeping changes to the nation’s food safety laws are underway, generally shifting the focus away from reacting to food safety problems and towards preventing them. The first two proposed rules of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) are out for comment. As part of its outreach and education efforts, the Oregon Department of Agriculture urges farmers and processors to take a close look at the rules and provide feedback.

“Now is the time for farmers and processors to pay attention and provide comment on the draft rules the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed,” says ODA Director Katy Coba. “FDA is trying to figure out how to make these rules workable at the time they are implemented. The proposed rules are extremely comprehensive and very complex. I think it’s starting to hit our producers and processors just how big these proposed changes are.”

The first two of five rules under FSMA were proposed this January. Public comments are due May 16, 2013.

According to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 48 million people–1 in 6 Americans– get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year from foodborne diseases. For many people, change in how the US deals with food safety problems is overdue.

Last week, FDA held one of three national listening sessions in Portland. Coba, who also chairs the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture’s (NASDA) Food Regulation and Nutrition Committee, opened the hearing by welcoming FDA and the attendees.

“I’m appreciative of FDA’s approach to drafting these rules and being willing to reach out to all the partners,” she says. “It’s now incumbent upon the rest of us to engage with FDA, make good comments, or ask for clarification if needed.”

Coba emphasizes that the rules are not a done deal. Comments offered by Oregon producers and processors– along with those provided across the US– will help make FSMA reasonable and effective.

ODA is coordinating outreach and education efforts related to FSMA by hosting a web page that contains important dates, details, a frequently asked questions section, and instructions on how to provide comment. ODA invites concerns or questions from farmers and processors through the web page, which will be updated throughout the implementation of FSMA.

In addition, there are still two upcoming workshops in Oregon on the proposed rules that will provide an overview for growers, packers, and processors– April 17 in Eugene and April 19 in Ontario. Similar workshops have taken place throughout the Pacific Northwest. Workshop partners include ODA, the Washington State Department of Agriculture, Idaho Department of Agriculture, Oregon State University, Washington State University, University of Idaho, and the Northwest Food Processors Association.

One of the proposed rules requires food manufacturers to develop a formal plan for preventing foodborne illnesses caused by their products. The other rule reaches down to the farm level, proposing enforceable safety standards for the safe production and harvesting of fruits, vegetables, and other produce.

The potential impact on Oregon agriculture is undeniable, given the diversity of crops produced.

“Oregon agriculture is not unique in the sense that these rules are proposed for the entire United States,” says Coba. “But we are a diverse agricultural state, both in the types of crops we grow and our production systems, which presents unique challenges in different parts of the state.”

Other facets of the proposed rules on produce center on water– something vital to Oregon growers and processors– and also deal with wildlife.

“There is some consternation over the requirements related to water and irrigation,” says Coba. “It’s very complex. Oregon has diverse irrigation systems, we also have a lot of wildlife that could impact food safety in the field. We need to be sure that any adopted rules can prevent foodborne illness but not overreach.”

National agricultural groups are combing over the proposed rules and analyzing how they affect their membership directly. State organizations are urged to do the same and many of them have done so already. The rules may impact Oregon cherry growers, for instance, differently than cherry growers in Michigan.

“It’s really important for commodity groups right now to pay close attention to the rules, think about how they would be impacted, and provide comments to either clarify or improve those rules,” says Coba.

While the final form of these rules is yet to be known, one certainty is that FSMA will rely on partnerships to a much higher degree than ever before. Collaboration between FDA and state agencies with food safety programs will be vital to any success.

ODA’s Food Safety Program currently conducts inspections, we participate in food recall efforts, we even contract with FDA for additional inspection work,” says Coba. “Nationally, NASDA is making sure the federal government doesn’t lose track of the important role the states play in the implementation of FSMA.”

Will state programs such as ODA’s be doing the same kinds of inspections as before? Will they be doing more inspections? Will federal funding be adequate for FDA to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act? All those issues need to be played out, according to Coba. But it’s not too early to ask those questions.

“We cannot lose sight of the fact that the United States has one of the safest food supplies in the world,” says Coba. “That being said, we’ve had some terrible outbreaks of foodborne illness and there is definitely room for improvement. If we can all come together and apply some common sense to how to make these rules work, I believe we can move forward and will end up having a better system to protect against foodborne illnesses.”

For more information, contact Katie Pearmine at (503) 872-6606 or go to the FSMA web page.

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