Comment periods for most of the proposed rules in the Food Safety Modernization Act have passed, and the produce industry is anxiously awaiting release of the final rules.

Comment period for the Sanitary Transportation of Human and Animal Food proposed rule remains open until May 31.

“We should anticipate a final rule for the safe food transportation act by March 31, 2016,” said Jim Gorny, vice president of food safety and technology for the Produce Marketing Association.

“They could come out earlier, but that’s likely the latest, as per FDA’s court-ordered and agreed upon timetable for publication,” he said.

A final version of the preventive controls rule is expected by Aug. 30, 2015, and the Foreign Supplier Verification program final rule should be issued by Oct. 31, 2015.

Although the deadline has passed for comments on the produce rule, Gorny said the Food and Drug Administration has promised to re-propose some of the key provisions.

“We should be looking for those over the summer,” he said.

Another comment period will follow, with the final rule due by Oct. 31, 2015.

Gorny expects some significant changes to be announced in the re-proposed produce rule.

“If they didn’t change, we’d be disappointed, because that’s the whole point of the open-comment process,” he said.

New proposals could affect key provisions, like those pertaining to agricultural water and jurisdictional lines between the produce rule and preventive controls rules, he said.

Grower-shippers seem supportive of FSMA.

“FSMA will only reinforce the steps that we have already taken in our operations,” said Amy Duda Kinder, senior director of food safety and consumer affairs for Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc., Oviedo, Fla. “The additional scrutiny and focus on our programs will continue to enhance our capacity to produce effective procedures,” she said.

“I’m glad to see that the act is going to be enforced because growers that may not have been doing it are going to be forced to do it now,” said Gary Wishnatzki, president of Wish Farms, Plant City, Fla.

“We’re all affected when there is a food safety issue,” he said. “As long as everybody is trying to do the right thing, that’s the important thing.”

 

Following the rules

Major grower-shippers seem to have already implemented most of the practices suggested by the proposed rules.

Duda Farm Fresh Foods shouldn’t have to implement many changes once FSMA takes effect, Kinder said.

“We have already seen a lot of changes with FSMA,” she said. “Thankfully, we have been ahead of the curve with regard to our policy development and programs, so we are in a very good position.”

The only change Kinder anticipates would be increased water sampling.

“Currently, we test on a monthly basis,” she said. “FSMA requires tests within seven days of harvest.”

Wish Farms already is doing everything FSMA would require, Wishnatzki said.

“My food safety professionals have studied it, and we’re already doing everything it would require and more,” he said.

But that’s not to say that Wishnatzki is completely happy with FSMA.

“The one thing that bothers me about it is that it’s not comprehensive for all size growers,” he said. “I don’t understand why a smaller grower would be exempt from practicing food safety and going to the same level of care (as larger growers).”

Just because growers may be smaller than the major grower-shippers doesn’t mean they can’t have a food safety problem, he said.

Wishnatzki said he does not agree with the amendment introduced by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester that made that provision possible.

“I think that was a big mistake,” he said.

 

Welcome opportunity

Walter Ram, vice president of food safety for Los Angeles-based The Giumarra Cos., welcomed the opportunity for the industry to comment on the proposed rules.

The purpose of the comment period was to ensure the best regulations possible, he said.

“There were some items that weren’t well received by the industry, and we commented not only that we weren’t fond of them, but we gave some sound reasons why,” he said. “We’re hopeful that those will be changed in the second release of the produce rule.”

Coming up with a food safety program for the industry is a complex matter, he added.

“The produce industry is very dynamic,” Ram said. “It’s actually a group of industries.”

Tree fruit, citrus, root vegetable, row crop, lettuce and leafy greens growers all have different food safety needs, he said.

While no one knows for sure what the final rule will look like, Ram doesn’t expect too many surprises.

“For those operations that have robust food safety programs already in place – and there are many of us – we don’t expect there to be a lot of changes,” he said.

“There are sure to be some details we are going to have to take into consideration,” he said, but he’s not advising grower-shippers to take any drastic action based on what they’ve seen so far.

“I expect there to be some big differences in the final rule compared to the original, preliminary rule that FDA issued,” Ram said. But he added, “I think it would be premature initiating any changes right now because we don’t know what the final rule is going to look like.”

There will be a phase-in period once the final rule is announced, he pointed out.

“We’re still a couple of years off before the first people have to have these things in place,” Ram said.

Meanwhile, he said, “I would advise people to put in place the best food safety program they can.”

Gorny agreed.

“It’s still the responsibility of individual operators to produce safe food,” he said. “They need to have preventive controls in place that address risks and hazards.”

It’s a good idea to consider proposed produce rule provisions as “good guiding principles to look at,” he said. But he added, “Don’t take them literally.”