HERMISTON, Ore. — Federal inspections have begun at Northwest farms to ensure producers are complying with new rules intended to reduce the likelihood of food-borne illnesses.
The Food Safety Modernization Act, or FSMA, was signed by President Barack Obama in 2011. It gives the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate how certain fresh fruits and vegetables are grown, harvested and processed before reaching consumers.
Stuart Reitz, director of the Oregon State University Malheur Experiment Station, discussed requirements and implementation of the law at the 46th annual Hermiston Farm Fair, held Dec. 4-6 at the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center.
Of particular concern to growers is the produce safety rule under FSMA, which covers everything from worker health and hygiene to buildings and equipment sanitation.
The rule applies to commercially sold products that are primarily consumed raw — such as onions, a staple crop of Malheur County in Eastern Oregon where Reitz works — to prevent the spread of disease-causing organisms like E. coli and listeria.
The FDA has exempted other types of produce that are normally cooked before eating, such as sweet corn and potatoes. Farms that made less than $25,000 in produce sales on average over the last three years are also not covered under the rule.
FSMA regulations went into effect in 2016, and on-farm inspections began earlier this year at large-scale operations making more than $500,000 in annual revenue.
"They'll start with the large farms, then work their way to small farms and very small farms over the next few years," Reitz said.
Inspectors prefer to arrive around harvest so they can see employees and machinery in action, Reitz said. The inspections consist of in-person interviews, observations and review of records to assure guidelines are being followed.
Reitz said the goal is "educate while regulate."
"They want you to understand any problems they might see, understand why it's a problem and how to correct those before they implement any penalties," he said.
One of the most contentious issues about the produce safety rule, Reitz said, was how agricultural water would be sampled and tested for harmful microbes.
Originally, the FDA wanted to use a more costly method under the Environmental Protection Agency, known as method 1603, to provide a direct count of E. coli in the water. Method 1603 is the same standard as used at swimming pools, Reitz said, and most agricultural labs are not set up to perform the test.
The good news, Reitz said, is the FDA ultimately relented and is allowing other sampling methods under FSMA to comply with the law.
The FDA also extended the time line for farms to comply with the agricultural water standards.
Large farms now have until Jan. 26, 2022. Small farms, or those that make between $250,000 and $500,000, have until Jan. 26, 2023, and businesses that make between $25,000 and $250,000 have until Jan. 26, 2024.
Reitz said he still does not know how frequently inspections will be conducted in the future, or how the FDA will prioritize its inspections. But he stressed that FSMA is a requirement, and farms will need to adapt to the produce safety rules while making sure they have the necessary training.
The Produce Safety Alliance has a number of grower training classes coming up in Oregon and Washington, including Jan. 30 in Ontario; Jan. 31 in Clackamas; Feb. 7 in Richland; Feb. 11 in Moses Lake; Feb. 25 in Walla Walla; and March 3-4 in Portland.
"You carry that credential with you for the rest of your career," Reitz said. "As long as you work on your farm, that farm is covered."