FDA officials learned about agricultural water testing during a field trip a few years ago. ( File photo )

The Feb. 27-28 Water Summit hosted by the Produce Safety Alliance brought a fresh focus on agricultural water safety but left questions open about the direction of future regulations.

“The recent agricultural water summit brought together hundreds of participants in Covington, Kentucky, and 28 satellite locations across the country to discuss ways to simplify the standards for agricultural water and testing,” said Cathy McDermott, spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration. 

The summit also looked at the need by FDA for more information about on-farm conditions and water systems, McDermott said in a statement.  “FDA will continue working with dedicated teams of produce experts to find the right path forward, one that simplifies the standards where possible while still producing safe fruits and vegetables for consumers across America and throughout the world.” 

While the presentations at the Water Summit may not have revealed any new information, the event brought a diverse group of stakeholders together at the same time and same place, said Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association.

“It remains to be seen how FDA uses this information, and I don’t envy their position,” she said.

FDA has issued a proposed rule to extend the compliance dates for the entire section of the Produce Safety Rule dealing with water until Jan. 26, 2022. The delay will give FDA time to decide if the ag water provisions need to be modified.

McEntire said the FDA’s basic options for agriculture water regulations include keeping the rule exactly, totally scrapping it, or coming down somewhere in the middle.

“The questions in my mind are how much do you keep in the codified rule versus in guidance,” McEntire said.

The FDA must make any alternatives accessible and useful and take into consideration the different hazards and risks that exist in different parts of the world and for different commodities, she said.

For example, she said there is a question of how will the FDA take into account exceptional events compared with the normal baseline of water.

“There a lot of issues that I think the (grower) community needs to grapple with, to try to offer solutions to FDA about how to manage risk,” she said.

United Fresh is in the beginning stages of giving growers the tools of asking questions to determine the risks associated with their water, she said.

The Water Summit provided clarity what the significant concerns are about the current rule as it is written and what are things that could be done to make it better at helping growers manage water on the farm and identify risks, said Betsy Bihn, director of the Produce Safety Alliance.

Bob Ehart, senior policy and science advisor for the National Association of State Department of Agriculture, said the Water Summit revealed other potential ways of approaching water safety may have surfaced.

That may include changing the produce safety rule, he said.

“I think it will require opening the rule in order to do an adequate job of actually dealing with the issues that FDA is concerned about and also simplifying the task,” Ehart said.

Sonia Salas, director of science and technology for Western Growers, said the Water Summit revealed a lot of questions about the science behind water regulations and the alternatives FDA can provide.

“Challenges are to understand water quality while the FDA reevaluating the regulations and trying to make sure people can make sure what they want them to do and increase the safety of their practices,” Salas said.

 

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