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Produce growers are evolving to meet federal food safety requirements, but a new study shows that many are not are optimistic that federal rules will make compliance with buyer expectations easier.

“While some of those in the case study expressed hope that the federal rules would move the industry toward a single system for food safety, most suggested that this is unlikely in a marketplace where third-party food safety audits are continually updated in response to the latest public health event or scientific finding,” according to the 40-page report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. The report, “U.S. Produce Growers’ Decision-making Under Evolving Food Safety Standards,” was written by USDA economists Gregory Astill, Travis Minor, Suzanne Thornsbury and Linda Calvin.

They interviewed about 50 people, including growers, food safety officials and state agriculture officials.

The study noted that the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act’s Produce Rule became the first set of national regulations governing food safety practices to be used on U.S. farms that sell fresh produce. In January 2018, the produce rule took effect for the largest growers, and others will face compliance in 2019 and 2020. 

Growers reported that complying with new rules was making operating their business more complicated.

“These growers emphasized their concern — beyond legal liability — for the quality of their product and the safety of consumers,” according to the study. “They described the newly mandated produce rule as an additional layer of complication to ever-evolving buyer standards in extremely competitive markets.”

Growers also face the challenge of maintaining the records necessary to comply with buyer-required audits and federal and state regulations. 

“Some growers in the case study had already adopted strict practices that are likely to meet produce rule standards while others have taken a wait-and-see approach, but growers were unsure of exactly what the (Produce Rule) would require in practice,” the report said.

Growers most confident in their ability to adapt to new food safety standards typically have a culture of food safety at their company and a well-developed information network related to food safety, according to the report.

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