( FDA )

(UPDATED, March 19)The Food and Drug Administration has finalized new compliance dates for the agricultural water requirements in the Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule.

The FDA said larger farms are now required to comply with the agricultural water requirements by Jan. 26, 2022. Small farms have until Jan. 26, 2023, and the agency said very small farms will have until Jan. 26, 2024. 

“These compliance dates have been extended while the FDA considers how best to protect public health while addressing widespread concerns about the complexity of the agricultural water requirements and the practicality of implementing them across a wide variety of farms, water sources and uses,” the FDA said in a news release. The agency will use the time to work with stakeholders to address these concerns, according to the release.

“We will continue to consult with experts in produce safety, water systems, and water microbiology, from both the public and private sectors, to take advantage of the very latest scientific developments and conclusions, particularly around water quality criteria, sampling, and testing,” the FDA said in the final rule.

The final rule made official what had been proposed in 2017, said Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association.

“This is just keeping with what FDA had said they were going to do,” she said. Even with the longer deadline extended for industry compliance, McEntire said the FDA may face challenges in fine-turning one rule that applies to all types of crops grown in different ways all over the world.

The industry isn’t necessarily lobbying for a particular approach to water testing, McEntire said.

“If there was an obvious solution we wouldn’t be in this position right now,” she said.

As the FDA continues to gather data on what water testing methods are appropriate, she said the current regulations in the produce safety rule are likely to change, she said.

“I would be extremely surprised if what’s currently on the books stands,” McEntire said. 

Even so, McEntire said the industry through orgs like the California and Arizona Leafy Green Marketing Agreements already have water testing requirements in place.

“When you have bodies like the LGMAs, they are going to move at a much faster pace; audits already have water requirements and they’re going to move at a faster pace because buyers are demanding it,” she said. “So I wouldn’t want people to look at this delay by FDA and equating with a delay by industry, because it’s not,” she said.

The rule does not change the compliance dates for sprout operations, according to the FDA. Sprout operations of all sizes must currently comply with water testing requirements.