Small operations exempt, but buyers may not be
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
PORTLAND -- While many small farmers and packers will be exempt from recently proposed federal food-safety rules, experts say they may still be affected.
Food companies will likely be reluctant to buy crops for raw consumption from growers who don't comply with water-safety and worker-hygiene rules recently proposed by the U.S Food and Drug Administration, experts say.
"If I'm selling produce, whether it's from a big guy or a little guy, I want to make sure they've got sound food-safety requirements," said David Acheson, a consultant and former chief medical officer within divisions of the USDA and FDA.
Acheson and other experts recently discussed the proposed rules at the annual conference of the Northwest Food Processors Association.
Under the FDA's proposal, farmers who sell less than $25,000 in crops would be exempt from the regulations.
Growers who mostly sell directly to consumers or local restaurants and earn less than $500,000 would receive a "qualified exemption" that could be withdrawn if they're linked to an illness outbreak or it's necessary to protect public health.
Realistically, food brokers will prefer to have uniform standards for all their suppliers rather than have more lenient criteria for small producers, said Jim Robbins, vice president of quality and food safety at the Bolthouse Farms food company.
"That's not a risk they would take," he said.
The good news for farmers who sell fruits and vegetables for raw consumption is that many food processors and packers have already largely adopted the measures proposed by FDA, like treatment of irrigation water, Robbins said.
"I don't see a huge impact to the industry," he said.
The proposed produce rules focus on agricultural water and worker hygiene and apply to crops that are likely to be consumed raw, unlike potatoes or asparagus.
Workers who handle crops would have to be trained in hygiene and farmers would need to document that training.
Irrigation water that may be unsanitary must be treated and periodically tested, with records verifying those practices. Similar requirements apply to manure.
Farmers must also minimize the hazards of animals in their fields, for example, by disallowing grazing for a certain time prior to harvest.
Growers who process their crops by freezing and other methods, or pack raw fruits and vegetables for other producers, may also be subject to additional food safety rules recently proposed by FDA.
"It will be sorted out on a case-by-case basis," said Charles Breen, the FDA's Northwest district director.
The agency is considering exemptions for packers and processors with fewer than 500 employees who earn less than a certain income -- ranging from $250,000 to $1 million under several options in the proposal.
However, experts say that such small food manufacturers will nonetheless face pressure from buyers to comply with the "preventive control" rules to gain access to markets and prevent negative public perceptions.
"A problem in one part of the industry affects the whole industry," said Breen.
Exempt processors will still likely need to comply with a scaled-down version of the FDA's rules, said Connie Kirby, scientific and technical affairs director of the NWFPA.
"You've got to show you're taking reasonable precautions," she said. "You don't just get to skate on food safety."
Buyer expectations have already compelled many food processors to voluntarily adopt "Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points" plans, Kirby said. The industry expects to work with FDA to adjust and enhance those plans.
"If you want to do business, you need to make sure you can demonstrate to customers that you have things under control or they won't buy your products," she said.
Under the new rules, processors would have to regularly conduct a "hazard analysis" of their operations to zero in on likely points of biological contamination, said Acheson.
"The expectation is to think very broadly about hazards of all types," he said.
Risks would be mitigated with proven controls, like subjecting food to a high temperature for a period of time, with the data measured as the processes occur, he said.
Deviations from these procedures would need to be corrected or the food would be considered adulterated.
"Look at the risks and manage them, is what they're saying," said Acheson, noting that documentation of the plan will be key.
The FDA's approach will be "if you didn't document it, you didn't do it," he said.