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Oregon focuses on Food Safety Modernization Act

Deadline for comment approaches for two proposed rules that impact growers

Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba echoes the sentiment of many farmers, food processors, and anyone else affected by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)– ensuring a safe food supply is of paramount importance, but it has to be done right. Some important deadlines take place this month as the US Food and Drug Administration reviews comments on proposed FSMA rules. ODA and others have worked hard over the past several months to develop responses to the proposed rules that will result in a better, more workable food safety system.

“We want a quality system to ensure safe food, but we need to be certain that its impacts on growers, packers, and processors are reasonable, viable, and doable,” says Coba, who also chairs the  Food Regulation and Nutrition Committee of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA).

Currently proposed FSMA rules deal with produce safety, preventive controls for human food, imports, third-party verification, and preventive control for animal food. The deadline for comments on the rules for produce safety and preventive controls for human food is November 15. FDA has announced a possible extension past November for comments on rules for imports and third-party verification. Comments on the newly-released proposed rules on food for animals aren’t due until February 26, 2014.

The produce rules alone have stirred the pot since they affect a group of folks who previously have not been directly regulated by FDA.

“For the first time, FDA is stepping onto the farm in a proactive role,” says ODA’s Stephanie Page, an assistant to the director– one of many staff members dedicating a lot of time to the FSMA process. “FDA has had authority to come onto the farm when a food safety outbreak occurs and needs to react to a problem. But FSMA gives them the authority to work with farms to prevent problems.”

After having a number of conversations with those who would be impacted by FSMA, ODA is busy working on its comments to meet this month’s deadlines and is attempting to capture much of what has been heard from the agriculture community in Oregon.

“Irrigation water, manure application on produce fields, and wildlife intrusion onto produce farms are some of the main issues we’ve heard about from concerned folks,” says Page.

In proposing the rules, FDA says it wants to zero in on farm practices that are most likely to cause food-borne illness. Water used to grow fruits and vegetables destined for raw consumption must not exceed a specific level of bacteria– 235 colonies of E. coli per 100 milliliters– that, many argue, is a relatively low threshold. Levels higher than the standard require producers to treat their water or cease irrigation. With so many growers irrigating from open canals and other surface water sources, reaching the FDA standards may not be affordable, if even possible.

“Onion growers in the Ontario area monitor their water and aren’t sure they can continue doing business if the rules, as proposed, apply to their product,” says Page.

There has also been concern about the required interval between the time manure is applied to fields of produce and the time of harvest. Others wonder about the creation of wildlife habitat and how that impacts wildlife intrusion into farm fields. Comments are also expected to call for a level playing field between domestic farmers and those in other countries who will be subject to the import rules.

“The more we can speak with one voice, the better,” says Page. “We have had a team of ODA staff working together to prepare comments on the rules since January, when the first proposals were released. We’ve engaged farmers, packers, and industry groups to talk about portions of the proposed rule and develop comments that say as much of the same thing as possible. We’ve talked to our neighbors in the State of Washington on their perspective and we are involved with NASDA as part of a technical working group preparing comments on the rules at a national level.”

NASDA members believe that after FDA reviews public comments on the initial rule proposals and revises them in response to those comments, the rules will have changed enough that they should be released again for public review before they are finalized. At its annual meeting in September, NASDA members unanimously voted to ask for congressional action on FSMA rules because the current timeline may not allow FDA to craft a sound and operable food safety program.

It remains to be seen whether FDA announces a second comment period after it has a chance to incorporate changes based on the first round of comments. But the first order of business is collecting all comments. Even though the clock is winding down, it is not too late for affected parties to get involved and electronically submit comments on FSMA through FDA’s website.

ODA and NASDA strongly support the goals of FSMA. Outbreaks of food borne illness have had  unfortunate, sometimes tragic impacts on consumers and the agriculture industry.

“The intent is to proactively prevent outbreaks in addition to responding to outbreaks, and we are certainly supportive of that effort,” says Page. “At the same time, we want to make sure the rules are really appropriate, that FDA gets them right the first time around and doesn’t adopt something that’s going to be unworkable for farmers and processors.”

In the end, ODA wants to maintain the viability of Oregon agriculture without compromising food safety, which is why it is so important that every Oregonian who has a stake in food production and processing takes advantage of the opportunity to learn about the proposed rules and provide feedback.

ODA's FSMA page

Media contact: Stephanie Page at (503) 986-4558.

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