CHICAGO — Even as Food and Drug Administration enforcement of produce safety regulations draws closer, food safety leaders say there is much uncertainty about some parts of the regulations.
 
A panel of five food safety experts provided the keynote presentation at the 2017 Food Safety Summit, giving their perspectives on changing food safety expectations for food suppliers and a measure of uncertainty about Trump administration priorities.
 
Much of the produce safety rule matches with good agricultural practices that have been widely used by growers for a decade, said panelist Dave Gombas, recently retired senior vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association.
 
“Farms already compliant with the good agricultural practices standards should have little difficulty complying with the regulation as it is written,” he said. “However, the response from the industry remains fear and confusion.”
 
In particular, Gombas said the water-testing provisions in the rule are complicated for growers, asking them to maintain complex statistical measures and following testing procedures they have never used before.
 
“It is more difficult when the test has to be done during certain periods of time, and there is not a lot of testing labs in rural America,” he said. “How will they comply with that?”
 
The question of whether packinghouses fall under the produce safety rule or the preventive controls rule remains a point of confusion. 
 
“If you are a processor on the farm, you are under preventive control, unless you are a very small farm and one of the 20-odd exemptions under the preventive controls rule that allows you to be under the produce safety rule,” Gombas said.
 
Many foreign suppliers of produce to the U.S. don’t even understand they are going to have to be in compliance with the regulations, Gombas said.
 
“The devil is in the details in regulations,” he said. “The produce safety rule provides a lot of flexibility in how the regulations will be met, (but) it is all going to be coming down to who is going to be doing the inspection and what they expect compliance to look like.”
 
With a new administration, there is a feeling of angst among some about the future of the federal role in food safety regulations, said panelist Craig Wilson, vice president of food safety for Costco Wholesale Corp.
 
“What we are going to do as a company and what we should do as an industry is really make sure that we understand what (the Food Safety Modernization Act) is and comply,” Wilson said.
 
Kathy Gombas, former senior advisor for food safety at the FDA, said the small- and medium-sized processors and importers may not understand the exemptions under the food safety regulations. Many of them need outreach efforts about the food safety rules.
 
“There are a number of exemptions, and it can be very confusing,” she said. “Importers want to be able to have templates and model plans they can look at so they can understand what it is they are expected to have when the regulatory agency or even third-party auditors come and visit them.”
 
The requirement for supply chain verification under the preventive controls rules has created questions, Kathy Gombas said. “Every class I teach the question comes up —
 
‘What do I do if I get my ingredients from Costco?’ ” 
 
She said industry operators have also expressed the desire for free or affordable training. 
 
One encouraging development in that respect, she said, is that the FDA will soon make available a free web-based tool to help food operators build a food safety plan.
 
Panelist Jeffrey Steger, assistant director at the U.S. Department of Justice, explained how the agency becomes involved with companies being investigated for foodborne illness outbreaks.
 
“One of the things that gets companies in trouble is when they are not being truthful or up front with the government, particularly FDA inspectors, investigators and agents,” he said.