ISDA director backs state food safety oversight

Idaho State Department of Agriculture Director Celia Gould speaks Nov. 11 to the Blackfoot Chamber of Commerce about implementation of the federal Food Safety Modernization Act. Gould believes her agency is in the best position to oversee farms once the FSMA produce rule takes effect.

BLACKFOOT, Idaho — Idaho State Department of Agriculture Director Celia Gould said her agency is best suited to implement new on-farm requirements of a major overhaul to the federal food safety law.

However, Gould acknowledged the transition would be a “heavy lift” for ISDA, given that Idaho is one of 21 states in which the state agriculture department doesn’t currently have food safety oversight. During a recent speech to the Blackfoot Chamber of Commerce, Gould emphasized implementation won’t be possible — regardless of how the state Legislature delegates responsibilities — if the U.S. Congress doesn’t agree to provide all of the necessary funding.

Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which Gould described as the most significant overhaul to national food safety law since President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, in 2010. On Nov. 13, the federal Food and Drug Administration issued final FSMA rules governing produce production. The produce rule exempts produce that isn’t generally consumed raw, such as potatoes, corn and sugar beets.

FDA plans to allow states to help with inspections.

Gould said Idaho has created a 25-member committee of producers and lawmakers, which has hosted two meetings since May and was scheduled to meet again Nov. 16, to make recommendations to the Legislature regarding how the state should implement FSMA and outlining responsibilities of individual agencies.

“Right now, the health districts do restaurants and processing facilities,” Gould said. “I would say on-the-farm needs to be the Department of Agriculture. I know our stakeholders, at least on the committee, agree with that.”

Gould believes it’s vital that farm inspections be done by local experts, familiar with local farming practices. “There are some things (with food safety) I’m sure we could do better, but we need to do this in an environment that is reasonable and with people who know what ag practices are all about,” Gould said.

David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology with United Fresh Produce Association, added that Congress has yet to agree to FDA’s request to increase its food safety budget by $109.5 million to implement FSMA.

The produce rule grants implementation grace periods, allowing two years for large producers to comply, three years for small producers and four years for very small producers.

Rules governing food processing facilities also recently took effect, granting a one-year grace period for companies to come into compliance before inspections start.

For many produce packing sheds, including facilities located off of farms, the new FSMA preventative control rules will require costly studies to validate that food-safety practices work as anticipated, among other requirements, Gombas said.

Idaho Sen. Steven Bair, R-Blackfoot, a retired potato farmer, said FSMA is tough for growers to understand, but it’s a given the law will create new burdens for them.

“There’s value in FSMA,” Bair said. “The problem is almost always with these new regulations, they end up falling down on the producers.”

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