Last month, the long-overdue produce rule finally surfaced — all 547 pages covering some 300 commodities.
Thus opens a four-month comment period that will trigger thousands of pages of opinions submitted to the Food and Drug Administration.
The Food Safety Modernization Act was passed two years ago.
The produce rule won’t be completed for at least another two and final implementation will take another four.
Government never ceases to complicate things. But so far in our analysis, we think most growers will not be heavily burdened by the new rules.
When the spinach industry was devastated after an E. coli outbreak in 2006, we didn’t wait for government to come to the rescue.
In seven months, the industry came together to devise and establish the food safety-oriented Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in California, and then in Arizona.
Five years later, these public/private partnerships that put science-based preventive food safety programs in place as a core requirement are doing an outstanding job of protecting public health, building consumer confidence and keeping adversity away from producers.
It was the right thing to do, it works and it will continue to serve the members well as government finalizes the Food Safety Modernization Act.
Consumer interest groups, trial lawyers, legislators and politicians who subscribe to the mentality that “if you pass a law, the problem will be solved” often ignore key elements and opportunities within a problem. They scramble for relevance, attention and a revenue stream and typically advocate for bigger and more control by government.
Too often that pandering forces industry to accept the political reality and bear the costs of another new regulation. This approach can actually disenfranchise the people and companies who are best positioned to enhance food safety through problem solving and innovation.
So while the rhetoric begins and interest groups begin to advance the next wave of conversation about how to produce safe food, we will take time to analyze the details in this proposed regulation with an eye toward constructively engaging the FDA and others to perfect these rules.
The good news is we think the standards will be flexible enough to incorporate new science and technology — which will emerge as it always does.
We also suspect that many of the final regulations and protocols will come from industry research and practices that most of the industry is already developing and incorporating.
This is the era of high-tech farming, of traceability and good agricultural practices on the farm and in packing and shipping operations.
Yet the costs to government and producers are currently ill-defined. It is not clear if Congress will appropriate the estimated $1.4 billion needed to implement new regulations, or if the government will use the industry as its piggy bank by assessing fees.
Rest assured, industry leaders will again fight the good fight on that and we will attempt to point out existing mechanisms such as the LGMA, the newly formed California Cantaloupe Marketing Order and others that may be put to use to accomplish FDA and industry objectives without sweeping increases in cost.
This rising tide of government overregulation is troubling on many levels, but we will not be daunted.
The expansion of government should come as no surprise when so many voters see government intervention as positive, good and necessary. We will manage and influence this regulatory process.
Yes, it’s another mountain to climb. But I will say there is a benefit: If passing and implementing a mammoth food safety law results in increased safety, consumer confidence and consumption of the fresh produce we grow and sell, the Food Safety Modernization Act and all the attendant rules, policies, programs, etc., will be worth the time, effort and resources.
Tom Nassif is president of the Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers Association.
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