Leaders with the National Potato Council will ask the federal Food and Drug Administration to exempt spuds from proposed food safety rules governing processing and packing facilities, John Keeling, the organization’s executive vice president and CEO, said during a Nov. 8 conference call.
Keeling emphasized the Food Safety and Modernization Act’s proposed produce rule excuses spuds from forthcoming on-farm regulations, deeming the vegetable to be safe since it’s typically eaten cooked.
Under the act’s preventative controls provision, however, potatoes are held to the same standards as other produce — requiring facilities that pack or process potatoes from multiple farms to meet quality standards and maintain records showing they’re following measures to prevent potential hazards identified through analysis.
Keeling will send his comments on behalf of the industry prior to a Nov. 26 deadline for FSMA public comments.
“We don’t believe just because a low-risk commodity moves from the farm to a packing shed and is associated with other low-risk commodities from other farms … it elevates the risk,” Keeling said. “This is a major undertaking and rewrite of our food safety laws. It’s going to take several iterations we believe to get it right.”
Keeling believes potatoes have a track record for safety, and the FDA would be better served by allowing the potato industry to improve through voluntary efforts, such as a new guidance document his organization commissioned to outline best practices in producing, harvesting, storing, packing and transporting potatoes.
NPC hired Intertox Decision Sciences to draft the guidance document, which was fine-tuned during eight months of reviews by a committee of industry stakeholders. Intertox Vice President Susan Learnan said she based the guidance document on FDA’s good agricultural practices guide, standards from Canada and documents on proper handling and storage from University of Idaho and Oregon State University. Learnen emphasized the document is not an auditable program but can help those who follow it “get to a level where you can feel secure.”
Learnen, who has developed similar guidance documents for cantaloupes, fresh herbs, leafy greens and green onions, said the potato document emphasizes microbial risks, but also addresses chemical and physical hazards.
Andy Diercks, vice president of Coloma Farms in Coloma, Wis., said GAP standards are overwhelming, and the guidance document provides potato-specific language that’s much easier to understand and implement. Diercks said his farm is replacing its packing shed and is using the guidance document to design the facility and base a training program for workers.
Officials with the industry’s leading trade association, United Fresh Produce Association, disagree that potatoes should be exempted even from the produce rules. Dan Vache, vice president of supply chain management with United Fresh, believes FSMA rules provide assurance that “if there is a problem, everyone has a handle on it, and there’s records.”
“When you talk to food safety professionals, any time you say you’re (commodity) is a low risk and I’ve never had a problem in commerce, the food safety professionals will say, ‘Not yet,’” Vache said. “There’s a risk in everything.”