FSMA delay doesn’t embrace food safety culture

10/25/2013 10:55:00 AM
Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson, EditorGreg Johnson, EditorNEW ORLEANS — While much work has been made on the Food Safety Modernization Act, a growing number of produce groups are urging a delay and second comment period when the current one ends in a few weeks.

Some critics are tougher than others.

“The FDA clearly lacks training and resources to fully implement FSMA,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Oct. 19 at Fresh Summit.

“It’ll make the rollout of Obamacare look like a well-oiled machine.”

That was spoken like one of the president’s detractors in the GOP-majority House of Representatives, of which Putnam was a member from 2001-11.

Trying to keep politics out of the food safety debate, I talked with ag commissioners from Florida, Georgia and Louisiana at Fresh Summit, and all three were strongly in favor of extending the comment period to a second one after this one ends and the Food and Drug Administration makes amendments.

Without a second comment period, FDA is on track to amend, publish in the Federal Register and then phase in the new rules over the next few years.

November sees the close to the FDA’s comment period on four proposed rules:

 

  • standards for growing, harvesting, packing and holding produce;

  • preventive controls;

  • third-party auditor accreditation; and

  • foreign supplier verification programs.

 

Putnam said the produce industry needs to be able to comment on the new rules.

Mike Strain, Louisiana’s ag commissioner, said implementing rules without a second comment period has the potential to put heavy strain on his state’s growers in terms of economics, labor and environment.

“Small farmers may quit or there may be noncompliance issues,” he said.

One grower I talked to the week after Fresh Summit felt the strain of an FDA audit.

Matt Solana, vice president of operations and supply chain management for Jackson’s Farming Co., Autryville, N.C., said FDA did an audit earlier this year looking for listeria and found none on product or the facility.

But he said it’s not like a USDA inspection, where the inspectors know the produce business. FDA inspectors do not understand farm conditions, he said.

He said the company has spent about $500,000 this year updating its packing line and about $1.3 million in the past five years.

“We went from packing in a barn to looking like an operating room,” Solana said.

But he said the company lost money in the cantaloupe deal this year. The company will decide in a month or two if it’s planting cantaloupes for 2014.

Strain also said the rules need to give an even playing field to local, large national and foreign suppliers alike.

“We can’t put local at a disadvantage,” he said.

Delaying rules to make sure they’re right and able to be implemented correctly certainly makes sense, but it seems to me that local, smaller growers are at an advantage when it comes to the small farm exemption in the rules.

It also seems to me that importers are hardly looking at the foreign supplier verification program as an advantage.

“I see it as the opposite,” said Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Nogales, Ariz.-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.

“To bring produce into the U.S., importers will have to prove they meet FSMA standards. You don’t have to do that in the U.S., only if you have an audit.”

Jungmeyer said his association also supports the delay and second comment period. The United Fresh Produce Association lent its support for the delay in late September.

“We need a food safety benefit, not just cost with no benefits,” Jungmeyer said.

The delay is a good idea, but the industry will have to be careful in how it requests it. It can’t be seen as being against food safety, even though that’s clearly not the case.

While the delay is the reasonable business solution, it doesn’t exactly embrace the “food safety culture” discussed in the Oct. 18 Fresh Summit workshop.

gjohnson@thepacker.com

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