In the days after the Food and Drug Administration released hundreds of pages of proposed food safety regulations for growers and food manufacturers, produce trade groups again focused on a concern they’d discussed with regulators for more than a year: exemptions for smaller growers.

While the government may create exemptions for small operations, Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications at the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, said produce buyers should not because pathogens don’t care about the size of a farm.

Produce leaders push for universal food safety“A better course of action for (buyers) would be to ensure their produce suppliers — large or small — are in full compliance with the new food safety standards,” Gilmer said. “In the interests of a consistent food safety standard, there can’t be an exception.”

On Jan. 4, the two-year anniversary of President Obama’s signing of the Food Safety Modernization Act, the FDA released proposals on produce safety for growers and a food facility rule designed to prevent outbreaks. Both have a comment deadline of May 16.

The produce safety rule proposes enforceable safety standards on farms, but has exemptions for smaller operations.

Also with small operation exemptions, the rule for food facilities requires companies to develop food safety plans and to have plans for correcting any problems that arise.

The Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association plans to continue a focus on education so small growers are engaged in food safety training, said Bob Whitaker, PMA chief science and technology officer.

“We wanted everybody included but it didn’t happen that way, so now we are reaching out with education,” he said.

Both national produce groups have formed committees to look at the rules and develop comments.

Gilmer said United Fresh plans a series of conference calls, Web seminars and meetings before submitting comments on the proposals.

Working groups have been formed to look at each rule, and Gilmer said a third will be organized when an imported produce rule is published.

“We will have a deliberate process over the next 120 days to make sure that we have thought through both of these laws carefully,” said David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for United Fresh.

Gombas said United Fresh will look at alternatives to FDA suggestions and examine unintended consequence of the proposed regulation.

Whitaker said PMA is summarizing the rules to send to members. A technical committee and other groups will more closely look at the rules before a response is filed.

For some growers, the main concern is a lack of a low-risk status for commodities such as tree fruit, citrus and grapes, said Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, Yakima, Wash.

Given the complexity of the rule and the questions the FDA poses to the industry, Schlect said it may be tough to respond by the May 16 deadline for comments.

Growers are concerned about the cost of complying with the regulation and how the FDA’s proposed regulation differs from current food safety audits demanded by buyers, Schlect said.

Schlect said it isn’t clear how FDA can have an equivalent system for imports.

“They don’t have enough people to police the state of Colorado, let alone worldwide,” he said.

Though FDA aims for voluntary compliance with the food safety law, there will eventually be regulations on all commercial shipments, Schlect said.

“How do you enforce that and actually make sure people are complying with whatever the law is under FDA?”

The one-size-fits all approach by FDA is disappointing, said Joel Nelsen, president of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual. He said while the rule talks about science- and risk-based regulation, the rule includes citrus, which Nelsen said is the least-risky commodity.

In Florida, Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Exchange, said he believes the effect of the produce safety regulation will be minor on Florida tomato growers because they successfully lobbied for similar food safety production standards at the state level.

Fairness of the regulation is also a concern for the import community.

“One of our main concerns is that hoping that imports are not treated any differently than domestic produce, that it is held to the same standard and the standards are science-based,” said Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas in Nogales, Ariz.

Jungmeyer said stressed federal budgets could tempt FDA to make up shortfalls by assigning fees to imports.

“To me, that would amount to a food tax.”

Companies are already facing costs just to comply with food safety mandates, so further fees aren’t acceptable, he said.