FDA chief reassures Oregon growers over FSMA concerns

Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, speaks with farmers about the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act during a Tuesday stop near Bend, Ore.

BEND, Ore. — Oregon fresh produce growers got some reassuring words from U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb during a stop Tuesday near Bend, Ore.

Implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act has loomed over the fresh produce industry since the law was signed by former President Barack Obama more than seven years ago.

The possibility of increased water testing and treatment, new federal on-farm inspections and the uncertain oversight of foreign competitors are just a few of the concerns raised by farmers.

During a visit at the Barley Beef feedlot outside Bend, Gottlieb acknowledged the agency is now venturing into some of the statute’s thornier regulatory territory.

“The easy parts of the implementation of FSMA are done,” he said. “The issues we’re grappling with now are hard.”

The law represents a critical rethinking of how the U.S. deals with food safety, but the government doesn’t want to saddle the food industry with outsized unintended consequences, Gottlieb said.

As the FDA increasingly scrutinizes U.S. farmers, there’s a danger that foreign produce suppliers will sidestep regulations due to lax enforcement by overseas authorities, said Kay Riley, general manager of the Snake River Produce Co. in Nyssa, Ore.

That’s particularly true since FSMA’s “foreign supplier verification” requirements fall heavily on importers who can close their doors and face little accountability, Riley said.

“We’re relying on them to be the police,” he said. “We want to make sure the playing field is level.”

Gottlieb said he was sensitive to such criticism but would “challenge that notion” that foreign suppliers will skirt regulations.

The FDA works cooperatively with foreign regulators and can conduct foreign inspections, among other tools available to the agency, he said.

As state regulators take over more FSMA inspections, the agency will devote more resources to ensuring that foreign suppliers comply with rules — particularly those companies who are flagged as unreliable, Gottlieb said.

“We’ll target our inspection to those,” he said.

Farmers are also concerned that regulations will disproportionately impact smaller operations.

Gabrielle Rossi, a farmer in Portland, said she expects to proportionately spend more money on regulatory compliance than a bigger company with dedicated food safety staff.

“Those dollars might be better spent on other avenues of our business,” said Rossi, who is on the Multnomah County Farm Bureau’s board of directors.

Rossi Farms is already accountable for food safety, since the operation sells directly to the public, she said.

Concerns about downstream contamination convinced Rossi to discontinue wholesale operations, since the farm could be blamed for others’ missteps.

“It may not have started with us but it ends with us,” she said.

Adam McCarthy, a tree fruit grower in Parkdale, said water testing requirements would have a more severe impact on operations with multiple smaller sites, such as those in the Columbia Gorge.

Conducting multiple tests per site would cost McCarthy up to $20,000 per year — several times the amount paid by larger operations with fewer sites in Central Washington.

For farmers to continue succeeding, they face the unpleasant prospect of having to “grow and swallow up neighbors,” McCarthy said.

Without going into specifics, Gottlieb said the agency is trying to achieve good testing standards that work for a variety of farm sizes.

“This is one of those residual issues we haven’t implemented yet,” he said. “We don’t want a one-size-fits-all standard.”

One aspect of FSMA that provides growers with optimism is the possibility that federal standards will replace the multitude of competing “good agricultural practice” audits required by retailers.

Riley, of Snake River Produce, said that auditors try to impress retailers with their stringent requirements, which the fresh produce industry should collectively “push back” against.

“A lot of it, frankly, is about making money on the audit side, not food safety,” he said.

The roundtable with fruit and onion growers was organized by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who also introduced Gottlieb to local biotech companies and discussed the opioid epidemic while in the area.

“We’re going to claim it’s the first time an FDA commissioner has set foot in Deschutes County,” joked Walden.

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