Pushing back the start of produce safety inspections by one year and extending the deadline for water testing compliance by two years, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced several new initiatives he said are designed to make sure the produce safety rule is successful at the farm level.
 
Gottlieb spoke Sept. 12 at the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture in New Orleans. 
 
The agency has recognized, he said in his speech, a need for expanded efforts to educate growers and state officials on the new produce safety requirements. Towards that end, the FDA will continue its focus on training, guidance development and outreach over the next year, he said.
 
For produce farm inspections, the FDA said large farming operations will still be expected to meet all produce safety requirements set by the rule for produce other than sprouts, except those related to agricultural water, by the original January 26, 2018 compliance date. 
 
Gottlieb, however, said that inspections to assess compliance with the non-water requirements of the produce safety rule for produce other than sprouts won’t start until 2019.
 
“We’ve heard very clearly from farmers and other stakeholders, including NASDA, that more time is necessary to ensure farmers have the training and information needed to comply and that states establish strong produce regulatory programs before inspections begin,” Gottlieb said in his speech. “We agree.”
 
The FDA and state partners will use the year to give more education, training and outreach to growers on the new requirements, according to a news release.
States — working with NASDA and the FDA — will expand On-Farm Readiness Reviews in the months ahead, according to the release. The reviews have been piloted in six states and allow growers to receive an assessment of their readiness to meet the new produce safety requirements.
 
Water changes
 
For agricultural water compliance dates, the FDA issued a proposed rule that would extend the compliance dates for the agricultural water requirements by an additional two to four years for produce other than sprouts.
 
The extension will allow the FDA to “take another look” at the water standards to ensure that they are feasible for farmers in all regions of the country and still protect public health, according to the release.
 
“We want to learn more about the diverse ways that water is being used in farms across the country so that we have standards that will work for everyone, and won’t be overly burdensome to growers,” Gottlieb said in the speech.
 
The new agricultural water compliance date the FDA is proposing for the largest farms is January 2022, the release said. Small farms and very small farms would have until January 2023 and January 2024, the FDA said. The proposed rule is open for public comment for 60 days.
 
The agency said it does not intend to take action to enforce the agricultural water requirements for produce other than sprouts while the rulemaking to extend the compliance dates is underway. 
Sprouts, because of their unique vulnerability to contamination, remain subject to applicable agricultural water requirements in the final rule and their original compliance dates, according to the release.
 
Gottlieb said the agency plans to talk with farmers, state regulatory partners and others about how water is used in agriculture. That outreach will include an agriculture water summit early next year, according to the release.
 
Water testing options
 
The FDA also announced eight additional water testing methods that can be used for meeting the requirements of the produce safety rule. The agency said it intends to add other methods to the list as they are identified.
 
The FDA actions on water testing are welcome, one industry leader said.
 
“This is the biggest news that we have gotten relating to the produce safety rule since the rule was finalized,” said Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology, United Fresh Produce Association,