By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
PORTLAND -- Lost work time and other employee costs are expected to be the most expensive component of a proposed federal food safety rule for fresh produce, according to a government economist.
"The largest cost contributor is worker health and hygiene," said Travis Minor, a senior economist with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "There's a lot of time cost involved in this calculation."
Compliance with the new produce safety rule is projected to cost domestic producers about $460 million a year, with worker health and hygiene expenses representing 30 percent, or $138 million, of that total amount, Minor said during an FDA meeting in Portland, Ore., on March 27.
Obtaining the right personnel training and qualifications to comply with the proposed rule will set growers back another $91 million annually, he said. "It's going to be time spent away from work."
Equipment, tools and processes need to follow the rule will run about $59 million per year, while testing, treating and managing irrigation water will require another $49 million, Minor said.
On average, the proposed produce safety rule will cost roughly $5,000 to $30,600 per farm, depending on the size, he said.
The actual compliance costs for many growers will be lower if they already own some equipment, follow certain water management practices and don't use raw manure for fertilization, said Minor.
Farmers won't feel the rule's full impact for quite some time. The proposal was made earlier this year, and once it becomes effective growers will have another two to four years to comply, depending on size.
Compliance with some water requirements will be phased in over an even longer time frame, and many small operations will be exempt from the regulations.
FDA estimates the rule will prevent $1 billion worth of productivity loss from illnesses, resulting in a net economic gain, Minor said.
"In every scenario we run, we find the expected benefits outweigh the projected costs," he said.
However, the FDA seems to be underestimating some of the practical challenges associated with the rule, such as testing surface irrigation water once a week, said Deborah Carter, technical issues manager with the Northwest Horticultural Council.
"They're not thinking about some of the issues," Carter said, noting that in Washington, only two labs conduct the water testing required by the agency.
"Who's going to take off and drive 92 miles to drop off the sample at the lab?" she said.
Each water source from a stream or river would have to be tested at $35 to $40 per week per sample, Carter said. If levels of coliform bacteria exceed the FDA's standard, the farmer would have to stop irrigating until the water is brought back into compliance.
"That can really ruin their crop," she said.
Jim Gorney, senior advisor to the FDA, said the agency is still seeking input from growers on the regulations and remains open to science-based alternatives that offer the same protection.
The FDA is still trying to decide how to even conduct inspections, as there is no national registry of farms as there is for food manufacturers, Gorny said.
"It's an open question," he said. "We need an inventory. We need to plan our workload."
At this point, the agency is trying to establish how the food safety practices will work, looking at the issue from a "10,000-foot level," Gorny said. "The compliance and enforcement is still very much in the genesis."
Protocols that provide more detailed guidance to farmers and agency inspectors are being developed on a parallel track and will become available before producers must comply with the rule, he said.
"These really get into the on-the-ground decisions involving what is in compliance and what is out of compliance," Gorny said.