It’s not often you can get the majority of farmers and ranchers to agree on anything. So it’s no small achievement that the Food and Drug Administration has managed to unite producers of all stripes in their opposition to its proposed safety rules.
The Food Safety Modernization Act was passed by Congress late in 2010 with the goal of mandating best safety practices for producers and processors while making it easier for regulators to trace foodborne illnesses back to their source.
FDA’s 1,200 pages of proposed rules to implement the act address food safety controls for the growing, harvesting, packing and holding of produce for human consumption. They have come under fire from an increasing number of farmers and industry groups that say they aren’t practical and are too costly.
• Onion producers in Idaho, Oregon and Washington say ag water provisions in the rules establish a standard that is impossible for growers who irrigate from open ditches to meet. No approved treatment method exists, nor would it be economical if it did exist. Fruit growers have similar concerns.
• The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement asserts that its existing food safety program already exceeds proposed requirements for produce under the Food Safety Modernization Act. It wants the FDA to accept its audits rather than subjecting producers to a second set of reporting standards.
• Organic producers are dismayed by proposed rules that would require farmers who fertilize with untreated manure to wait nine months before harvesting crops that come in direct contact with the soil.
Producers who use composted manure would have to wait 45 days. Growers say in many cases those rules are unworkable, and more strict than the National Organic Program rules. They fear the rules will either require small producers to double their production or adopt conventional growing methods.
• The law exempts producers who sell less than $500,000 in product from most the rules. Larger producers say that’s not fair because small growers aren’t immune to pathogens that cause illness. Small growers are concerned because under certain conditions their exemption can be lifted by the FDA, which would subject them to expensive regulation.
The FDA has made an effort to listen to producer concerns and tweak the rules before making them final. The public comment period for the proposed produce safety rules ended Nov. 22, but agency officials have agreed to provide additional opportunity for farmers to offer input before the rules are finalized.
The nature of that opportunity, however, is a bit fuzzy. Seventy-five members of Congress have asked FDA to conduct another formal comment period.
That makes sense given the ongoing concerns.
The final rules must be scale-appropriate and realistically attainable.
No one can argue with food safety in the broad strokes. But entire sectors of the ag economy could disappear in the details of this law.