Comments from industry members are critical in determining the specifics of the Food and Drug Administration’s final version of the produce safety rule, Produce Marketing Association leaders said in a Jan. 17 Web seminar.

Newark, Del.-based PMA chief science and technology officer Bob Whitaker and the group’s representative in Washington D.C., Tom O’Brien, provided an overview of the FDA’s proposed Food Safety Modernization Act rules on produce safety and food facilities. The presentation is free on the PMA website.

More than 500 participants from 15 countries participated in the web seminars, according to Meg Miller, director of public relations for PMA.

Topics addressed in the produce safety rule presentation included who the rule applies to, what the produce rule covers, whether the produce rule and preventive controls rules are commodity specific, recording keeping requirements, and other standards for personnel, agricultural water and soil amendments.

O’Brien said industry input in the proposed rule stage is incredibly important as the rule moves from the proposed stage to final.

Questions such as what produce is covered and the definition of a farm, for example, are critical to how the rule is implemented, he said. “Ultimately, we go from an academic exercise to ultimately implementing them,” he said.

Whitaker said the FDA needs industry input to get the rule right and he invited industry members to both send their comments to the PMA and the FDA.

Some questions focused on imports; a separate rule on foreign farms will come through soon, O’Brien said. That rule will probably means foreign farms will have to be certified by a third party, but the coming proposed rule will clarify that, he said.

Whitaker said the rule made it clear the rules apply to both U.S. and foreign producers who sell to the U.S., though details are still not clear until the FDA issues the rule on imports.

Responding to a question about the value of current food safety audits, Whitaker said growers will benefit from having put in place food safety requirements.

“You might have some tweaking, but you will be pretty far along the way to becoming compliant (to the produce safety rule),” he said.

One question focused on the FDA not requiring a written food safety plan but having requirements related to the water, health and hygiene and other standards. Whitaker said the FDA likely didn’t require a written food safety plan because it didn’t want to make the produce rule too burdensome.

More detailed questions about water requirements will be addressed and answered on PMA’s website, said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations.

Regarding a question about how traceability is addressed in the produce rule, Whitaker said the FDA is expected to issue a report on traceability pilot projects this summer that will guide them in developing additional record-keeping rules.

Regarding enforcement of the produce safety rule, Whitaker said it will take time for inspectors to gain knowledge of the industry.

“FDA is spending a lot of time and a lot of thought in working up the training program,” he said.

During a Q&A session about the food facilities rule, a question from the audience asked about where the definition of a farm ends and the food facility begins.

“If it is simply packing fruits or vegetables from their farm, then it should still be a farm,” O’Brien said.

On Jan. 24, FDA officials are scheduled to join Whitaker for two additional PMA Web seminars, featuring the FDA’s Samir Assar in a review of the produce safety rule and the agency’s Jenny Scott in a review of the preventive controls rule.