FDA focuses on food safety educationANAHEIM, Calif. — The last word on food safety regulations for the produce industry won’t be written next year, even though the Food and Drug and Administration has committed to publish final versions of the produce safety and preventive controls rule for food facilities in 2015.

FDA officials speaking at an Oct. 17 Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit workshop said the process of refining and educating growers and industry will continue for years and urged industry leaders to continue their dialogue with the FDA.

The FDA has been working with the produce industry on food safety since the late 1990s, said Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods for the agency. He credited the PMA and other industry groups in that process.

Even though some of the final food safety regulations will be on the books next year, Taylor said it won’t be all over then.

“We’ve got to see this as a long process,” he said.

Taylor urged more input from the industry on the recently issued supplemental rules that are open for comment until mid-December.

Taylor said those rules address microbial standards for agricultural water, clarification of operations subject to the produce safety rule, relaxation of raw manure rules and changes in exemptions from the produce safety rule.

The exemption issue is controversial, he said, with some groups favoring no exemptions and others favoring more. The FDA has found room for some exemptions, but he said smaller producers not subject to the rule are still subject to existing standards in food law.

“At the end of the day, all growers are accountable for food safety,” Taylor said. “The question is, ‘How do we get there?”

When the food safety regulations are implemented, Taylor said the agency is committed to education before regulation.

“Most people want to make (food safe), what they need is clarity about what is expected,” he said.

Taylor noted that many attending the standing room only session have contributed to produce safety standards already in place.

Other growers need help to achieve acceptable food safety standards, and Taylor said the FDA is committed to help them.

The process, aided by a recent agreement between the FDA and state departments of agriculture, will be a long-term project that will extend at least a decade, he said.

Even as the FDA and states collaborate on public oversight, Taylor said that most of the verification and accountability of new food safety rules will come from private sources such as third-party audits.

Meshing that private and public oversight will be an important test of making the produce safety rules effective, he said.

Samir Assar, director of produce safety at the FDA, addressed the changes in water testing and raw manure regulations.

PMA’s Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer, and Jim Gorny, vice president for food safety and technology, moderated the panel that also included Walter Ram, vice president of food safety for The Giumarra Cos., Los Angeles; Courtney Parker, vice president of salad quality and global food safety, Fresh Express, Salinas; and Mike Villaneva, technical director of the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, Sacramento.

In a question and answer period, Parker asked the FDA officials about the mandate to test agricultural water for generic E. coli.

Assar said generic E. coli is a good indicator for fecal contamination, but the agency was open to research that would suggest another standard that would be more appropriate.

Villaneva said there is grower confusion about its new testing scheme for water, and Assar acknowledged that growers will need assistance to perform the tests.

Ram questioned how the FDA will evaluate the significance of a positive listeria test at a distribution center for produce, and Assar said the context of the find is important.

“It could lead to the conclusion there is a public health issue,” he said.

Parker asked if the FDA would be investing in research projects on produce safety, such as the proper science necessary for the application of raw manure. Taylor suggested the FDA will have few funds to support research, but suggested the FDA could advise on research projects funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or other agencies.