By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Farmers and the federal government seem to take divergent views of the economic burden imposed by proposed produce safety regulations.
That disconnect became apparent during a recent public meeting in Portland, Ore., to discuss food safety rules proposed earlier this year.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimated that employee-related expenses represented roughly half of the produce rule's $460 million annual cost to domestic farmers.
About 30 percent of the total amount stems from lost time due to farm laborers frequently washing their hands, maintaining and replacing gloves or being excluded from work due to illness.
Another 20 percent of the total cost came from training managers and employees in the new food safety protocols.
While the FDA's economic analysis found these employee-related expenses to be the biggest financial impact of the proposal, they were largely ignored by farmers during public comments at the meeting.
Several growers and their representatives who attended the meeting were primarily worried about new regulations for agricultural water -- a component the FDA pegged at less than 11 percent of the total cost, or $49 million.
"I believe your economic estimates are extremely low in the impact on agricultural producers in this country," said Jim Colbert, food safety director of the Chelan Fruit Cooperative in Chelan, Wash.
One of the top concerns was weekly testing of each water surface water source, which can add up quickly for farmers who draw from several streams and rivers. Rural areas are seldom close to laboratories where samples are tested, so this presents a practical challenge for growers as well.
The FDA's method of discerning risk was also questioned.
A partner in an Oregon produce company noted that its water regularly exceeded coliform levels set by the agency, but never tested positive for particularly dangerous microbes -- salmonella and E. coli 0157:H7.
Speakers also said that exceeding the allowable levels of coliform bacteria in the water could be financially disastrous for farmers who would have to stop irrigating or spraying fruit with water to prevent sun damage.
Chemical treatments and sophisticated filtration, which are used by municipalities, generally aren't an economic option for farmers, they said.
Charles Lyall, a farmer from Mattawa, Wash., said the regulations seemed like overkill for tree fruits, which unlike other crops haven't been linked to major illness outbreaks.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," he said.
For their part, FDA officials at the meeting seemed conciliatory and emphasized that the proposed rule was not set in stone.
"Rest assured, what you're saying is being heard," said Michael Taylor, the agency's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, who has been dubbed the nation's "food czar."
Provisions have been built into the rule to provide for variances and science-based alternatives, said Donald Kraemer, senior advisor to FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
The agency is also open to suggestions about overseeing the safety of water on a larger scale, such as the irrigation district level, he said. "There are probably a lot better ways to collectively manage water."
Kraemer also said he was hopeful that a future regulation enacting the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 may actually help simplify operations for farmers and packers.
Fruit and vegetable producers are now subject to time-consuming audit demands from buyers, he said.
If the FDA establishes a baseline standard for audits to ensure compliance with federal regulations, that could make life easier for the industry as well as the agency.
"We're not going to be adequately resourced to inspect all the farms," Kraemer said.