FDA outlines food safety guidance for farmers

PORTLAND — Federal food regulators outlined their proposed “guidance” to help the farm industry understand how new regulations will be implemented during a Nov. 27 meeting.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finalized rules for growing, harvesting, packing and holding certain fresh produce in 2016, the “guidance” explains the agency’s current thinking and recommendations for how they’ll be carried out.

During its meetings in Portland and other cities, the FDA hopes to solicit advice from the produce industry on how to make the guidance more clear and useful for growers and others, who have until April 2019 to submit their comments to the agency.

“What we do can only be as good as the information we have to work with, so we’re counting on you,” said Michelle Smith, an FDA senior policy analyst specializing in food safety.

Officials with the agency repeatedly told the audience that guidance recommendations are intended to compel farmers to analyze their own operations to best apply food safety principles.

To some extent, such ambiguity in the rules can be frustrating for growers, who want to comply with the regulations but want to be certain what they need to do, said Ines Hanrahan, executive director of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, who spoke at the meeting.

“Please just tell me what to do and I’ll do it,” Hanrahan said, summarizing the feeling of many farmers. “It’s really not as simple as this.”

Ultimately, though, the FDA is counting on growers to implement regulations in the most effective way, so the agency will benefit from their local insights and commodity-specific research, said Jim Gorny, senior science advisor for produce safety with the agency.

“Nobody knows your operations better than you do,” Gorny said.

Samir Assar, director of FDA’s produce safety division, said the agency was aware of certain tensions the regulations may present for agriculture, such as minimizing the risk of contamination from feces without disrupting local wildlife habitat.

“We’re sensitive to that and we want to avoid that,” he said. “There’s a recognized need to align sustainable practices with food safety practices.”

The regulations don’t prohibit domesticated or wild animals from existing on farms covered by the rules, but farmers are advised to determine the “reasonable probability” fields may become contaminated based on historical observations and other information, said Smith, senior policy analyst with the agency.

“This is one area we’re specifically seeking comments and data,” she said.

In addition to being aware of where animals may be defecating, growers should also consider other factors related to contamination, such as flooding, said Amber Nair, consumer safety officer with FDA. It’s also recommended they visually monitor fields for contamination, in case they may not be fit for harvest.

“These assessments are most effective when performed as close as practicable before the beginning of harvest or during harvest,” Nair said.

Some of the guidance recommendations, such as informing visitors of farm food safety policies, are often non-existent or not broadly applied enough, said Sue Davis, produce safety development specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

It will be helpful for ODA to highlight such recommendations as the agency conducts outreach and education about the Food Safety Modernization Act, the overarching law that was enacted in 2011 and led to the new rules, she said.

However, implementing such rules may affect farmers’ behavior, said Faith Critter, produce safety extension specialist with Washington State University. “I think people may not allow visitors on their farms if it becomes too hard to manage at the end of the day.”


USDA: Small farms bear greater food safety costs

Complying with the Food Safety Modernization Act will consume a much larger chunk of small farmers’ revenues compared with their larger counterparts, according to USDA.

Fresh produce growers with annual sales above roughly $3.5 million can expect to devote less than a third of 1 percent of revenues on complying with the federal statute, which was enacted in 2011, according to a recent USDA study.

Meanwhile, those with less than $500,000 in annual sales will likely spend about 6-7 percent of their revenues to meet FSMA requirements, such as water testing, worker training and recordkeeping, the study found.

The added expense may prompt some smaller farmers to stop growing fresh produce crops affected by FSMA, or convince them to sell off their operations altogether, said John Bovay, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut.

“Clearly, farms aren’t operating on huge profit margins, especially small farms,” Bovay said. “Consolidation is definitely an option.”

When comparing farms by size, the cost of complying with FSMA increases sharply as farms attain revenues of about $500,000, after which the expense mounts more slowly and then levels off once revenues hit about $3.5 million, the study said.

In effect, the total costs of training workers or testing water are relatively fixed, but bigger farms can spread those expense across a larger revenue base, Bovay said.

“Compliance cost increases with revenue, but at a decreasing rate,” he said.

When the rules associated with FSMA are fully implemented in 2022, the actual cost for large farms may actually be less than the 0.3 percent estimated by the study.

That’s because large growers have already been required by major retailers to adopt food safety practices that will be mandated by FSMA, Bovay said. “It’s going to accentuate the advantage the big guys have, because the big guys are already complying.”

Because following FSMA’s mandates will probably cause a small reduction in the supply of fruits and vegetables, the associated increase in prices will help mitigate costs for the farming industry as a whole, he said.

In general, though, the regulations will make it tougher for small farms to remain competitive while any improvement in food safety will likely take years to recognize, he said.

“Our food safety system is quite good in the U.S. and the risks are quite low,” Bovay said. “It’s not clear they will lead to benefits that exceed costs.”

Since some fruits and vegetables are more likely to be grown by smaller farmers, FSMA costs will be steeper for those crops and the areas where they’re commonly grown, the study said.

For example, the cost of compliance will fall below one percent of revenues for growers of broccoli, carrots, lettuce and spinach.

For producers of such Northwest staples as cherries and pears, however, FSMA requirements will cost nearly 3 percent of revenues on average.

Expenses as a share of revenues also range by state: 1.32 percent for California, 1.38 percent for Washington, 1.67 percent for Idaho and 2.67 percent for Oregon.

It must be remembered that FSMA is only one factor that’s increasing the cost of doing business for farmers, said Mike Doke, executive director of the Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers nonprofit, which represents cherry, apple and pear producers in the region.

“Costs are coming at growers from every angle — from labor to regulation — and this only adds to that,” he said. “They’ve got fixed costs going up and no way to make sure their revenue will go up to match it.”

Oregon and Washington produce about 88 percent of the fresh pears grown in the U.S., often in historical orchards that aren’t easily replaced with other crops, said Kathy Stephenson, director of marketing communications for the Pear Bureau Northwest marketing organization.

“Our average pear grower has 50 acres, so not a lot,” she said.

The true costs of FSMA are uncertain right now because key provisions — such as water testing — are still under consideration, said Kate Woods, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents the growers, packers and shippers of apples, pears and cherries.

Investing in food-grade packing equipment that’s easily sanitized may end up being more expensive than accounted for in USDA’s study, though many costs associated with FSMA are already being shouldered by farmers, she said.

“Most of our industry has been active and engaged in food safety, so they’re not starting at that zero point,” Woods said.


Oregon wetland inventory raises regulatory concerns

An inventory of Oregon’s wetlands is intended as an “early warning system” to prevent regulatory conflicts but some lawmakers worry it effectively expands government jurisdiction over farmland.

The Oregon Department of State Lands is developing a statewide wetlands inventory map using multiple sources of information to show where wetlands are located.

The question is significant for farmers, who must obtain fill-removal permits from DSL before starting major ground-disturbing projects within wetlands.

However, current inventories maintained by the federal government and local governments are incomplete, raising the possibility that landowners may not know they’re filling or removing material from a wetland.

A statewide wetland inventory would reduce the likelihood of such “false negatives,” said Bill Ryan, deputy director of operations for DSL.

In 2016, for example, a Willamette Valley farmer began replacing hay barns destroyed in a fire with local government permission, only to have DSL claim he was building in a wetland.

One of the criteria to determine the existence of a wetland is whether the property contains hydric soils, which form when ground is regularly inundated with water for lengthy periods, Ryan said during a May 21 hearing before the House Agriculture Committee.

“The Willamette Valley in particular has a lot of these hydric soils,” he said.

Hydric soils will serve as a “wide net” for analyzing lands, but the agency will rely on the area’s current hydrology and other technical factors to decide whether it’s currently a wetland, Ryan said.

Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, said he was concerned about DSL going beyond what’s currently considered a wetland by the federal government, particularly since development on farmland is already restricted under Oregon’s land use system.

The agency should be careful not to exceed the boundary of its statutory authority in developing the statewide wetland inventory, Clem, the committee’s chair, said. “I would put this whole program under review.”

Other committee members also expressed worries about the inventory.

While obtaining a fill removal permit in a designated wetland is possible through the purchase of mitigation credits, that’s not always financially feasible, said Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio.

“Being able to afford it is something totally different,” she said.

Rep. Brock-Smith, R-Port Orford, said landowners may lack the personnel to deal with the permitting process, while Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, requested an economic impact study of the statewide inventory and its effects.

While certain wetlands may be missing from the national inventory map maintained by the federal government, that doesn’t mean that federal agencies don’t have authority over them, said Ryan of DSL.

Areas not on the federal map can still be regulated under the Clean Water Act and state officials would use the same parameters to decide whether property contains a wetland, he said.

The goal of the statewide inventory is to show people where the agency has wetland authority so they don’t unintentionally break the law, Ryan said.

“That is really what this inventory is for,” he said. “We’re not increasing our jurisdiction at all.”

The Oregon Farm Bureau wouldn’t necessarily oppose DSL’s mapping project but it’s concerned about how broadly the agency is defining wetlands, said Mary Anne Cooper, the group’s public policy counsel.

The statewide inventory would presume many properties are wetlands until the landowner proves they’re not, she said.

“We think they’ve taken a very expansive view of their jurisdiction and have not honored some of the carve-outs that legislators have made to reduce their jurisdiction,” Cooper said.


Bee colonies stable despite steep annual losses

More than a decade since the appearance of the mysterious “colony collapse disorder,” beekeepers still face abnormally high levels of bee die-offs, according to USDA.

Despite the greater annual mortality rate, however, beekeepers have kept the total number of hives stable and generally haven’t sharply hiked up their pollination service fees, the agency found.

Losses of honeybee colonies over winter have averaged nearly 29 percent since 2006, when CCD was discovered, which is roughly twice the historical rate, according to a new USDA report, “Economic Effects and Responses to Changes in Honey Bee Health.”

Apart from that disorder, bees have suffered from mites, diseases, pesticide exposure, poor nutrition and other stressors, the report said.

While the winter loss rate has gone as high as 36 percent, the total number of colonies in the U.S. has fluctuated between 2.3 million and 2.8 million over the past decade, according to the study.

The data indicates beekeepers have coped with the higher winter losses by splitting hives and buying additional ones, USDA said.

The number of colonies in the U.S. hit a record of nearly 6 million in 1946, but then dropped by about half even before the introduction of varroa mites and associated viruses in the 1980s, the agency found. The decline was probably caused by market factors, such as the availability of alternative sweeteners.

“Despite the elevation in honey bee colony loss rates since 2006, there is little evidence of disruption to agricultural crop or retail food markets in terms of rising prices or decreasing availability,” said the USDA report, adding that “most of the adjustment has occurred at the level of the beekeeper, with less adjustment at downstream levels in the production and marketing chain.”

The current cycle of steep hive loss and replenishment is sustainable only in the short term, but not if problems with pests and disease continue to climb, said Harry Vanderpool, president of the Oregon State Beekeepers Association.

“There is no easy money in agriculture and beekeeping follows that saying to the word,” he said.

Since the mid-1980s, for example, the number of treatments necessary to fight varroa mites has mounted, Vanderpool said. “Now, it’s at a point of almost continuous treatments or manipulations.”

Vanderpool said he’d like to see data based on a more rigorous process than the survey questions used by USDA, which can be prone to misinterpretation.

Beekeepers also face different economics based on region.

Tim May, an Illinois beekeeper and president of the American Beekeepers Federation, said annual colony losses in his area have hovered at 65 percent to 70 percent in recent years.

Problems often begin even before the onset of winter, which May attributes to the popularity of systemic neonicotinoid pesticides used on corn and soybean seeds.

“By the end of summer, they seem to be falling apart,” May said of his bees. “I’ve thought about getting out myself because it’s not sustainable.”

Even with the challenges confronting beekeepers, the cost of pollination services has appreciated only modestly for most crops, according to USDA’s report.

The exceptions are almonds and plums, for which pollination service costs have more than tripled since the 1990s, the agency found.

While the survey pegged overall beekeeper income from pollination services at about 40 percent, in Oregon the proportion is closer to 70 percent, said Vanderpool.

Vanderpool said there has been a steep increase in pollination prices in California’s almond groves, which reflects the difficulty of moving bees there during the February pollination.

“It’s the toughest time of year to provide a good, strong hive,” he said.


Nonprofit ensures organic inputs meet standards

EUGENE, Ore. — The growing consumer appetite for organic food has caused a chain reaction through the agriculture industry, all the way through to farm input suppliers.

Rising interest in organic farming has spurred the creation of new products and companies seeking to supply those growers with organic fertilizers, pesticides and other goods.

Over the past 20 years, the number of products listed for organic use by the Organic Materials Review Institute has increased from fewer than 200 to more than 6,000.

OMRI, a nonprofit based in Eugene, Ore., is charged with ensuring those crop, livestock and processing products comply with organic standards established by the USDA.

In just the last year, the number of products listed by OMRI has shot up 20 percent.

There is some confusion about the institute’s role in the organic industry, said Peggy Miars, its executive director.

Companies occasionally try to convince OMRI to approve a product even though it contains a prohibited substance, not understanding the organization doesn’t make such calls, she said.

OMRI doesn’t decide whether it’s appropriate for a substance to be allowed in organic production — that responsibility falls to the USDA’s National Organic Program and an advisory group of industry stakeholders, the National Organic Standards Board.

Not an advocate

“We never advocate for or against a particular substance,” said Miars.

Instead, the institute evaluates the formulations of branded products to determine if they’re composed of substances that are permitted by USDA.

When a substance is proposed for inclusion in organic production, the USDA may also hire the institute to research the material’s impacts on the environment and human health.

However, OMRI doesn’t make recommendations and stays out of controversies about approving or prohibiting substances, said Miars.

“One reason OMRI is respected is because we are neutral,” she said. “We don’t go one way or another.”

The vast majority of products listed by OMRI — 86 percent — pertain to growing crops, and most of those are fertilizers and soil amendments.

The remaining 14 percent are fairly evenly split between livestock products and processing products, such as those used to make cheese and wine.

In recent years, there have been a lot of new innovations with anaerobic digestate. This liquid and solid waste comes from anaerobic digesters, such as those that generate power from dairy manure, said Kelsey McKee, OMRI’s review program and quality director.

OMRI’s role is to ensure the digestate byproduct doesn’t contain substances that are prohibited in organic production, she said.

Input suppliers are also developing new products containing specific beneficial microbes and mycorrhizal fungi, McKee said.

These soil amendments go beyond general compost: Certain bacteria and fungi can reduce pressure from pathogens or maximize nutrient availability, she said.

OMRI determines whether these microorganisms are genetically engineered, which is excluded from organic farming, or are grown in synthetic media that aren’t allowed.

“Different microbes can have different roles,” McKee said. “We are looking at where are they getting it, how are they growing it.”

Growing workload

Before OMRI was founded two decades ago, organic certifiers such as Oregon Tilth and California Certified Organic Farmers would review branded products for compliance with organic standards.

As the work became increasingly time-consuming, these and other organic groups chipped in financially to launch OMRI, which would be dedicated to this function.

With the climbing number of products proposed for listing, the institute has been swamped with work.

When Miars was hired seven years ago, the organization received about 40 applications a month. It’s now up to 130.

Since the organization wasn’t willing to compromise on thoroughness, the backlog has lengthened OMRI’s review periods, Miars said. “We had a reputation for being really slow.”

A hiring spree that increased OMRI’s staff by 50 percent over the past two years has reduced the wait time. In late 2016, the median review process took seven months, but it’s now down to two months.

OMRI is also automating its application process to require less data-entry from employees, which the institute hopes will further improve efficiency.

“We are relying more and more on technology,” Miars said.

Cutting down on mind-numbing tasks serves another worthwhile function: Making jobs at OMRI more rewarding.

Recruiting and training educated workers costs money, so the nonprofit must focus on retaining them, she said. “It’s good to see people want to stay with OMRI and grow with us.”

To that end, the institute encourages its employees to give presentations and write articles about obscure materials-related dilemmas.

For example, can paper bags with colored ink be used in organic compost? The answer is yes — the ink is considered an unavoidable environmental contaminant.

The institute has also set its sights beyond the U.S.

In 2012, OMRI started a program to review materials that are compliant with Canada’s organic standards, and it’s looking to replicate the effort in Mexico.

Currently, organic materials review in Mexico is conducted by organic certifiers, Miars said. “There are certifiers and growers in Mexico who would love it if we could launch that program tomorrow.”


Oregon county approves scaled-back rural housing zone

Oregon’s Douglas County has approved a scaled-back plan to allow more rural housing on land currently zoned for farm and forest uses.

The change to the county’s comprehensive land use plan would allow 20-acre home sites to be carved out from 22,500 acres in mixed farm-forest zones, down from the originally proposed 35,000 acres.

It’s unlikely the full 22,500 acres will ever be developed due to limitations on water availability, appropriate septic tank sites and landowner consent to sell or divide property, said Keith Cubic, the county’s planning director.

The most likely scenario would be 25 percent utilization of the available acreage, creating 375 new housing parcels, said Cubic.

Even so, Cubic acknowledges the county’s experiment with the “rural open space” designation is a test case for Oregon.

The county has tried to resolve concerns raised by Oregon’s Department of Land Conservation and Development, which administers the statewide land use planning system, he said.

“I don’t know if we got there,” Cubic said. “We’ll find that out.”

Douglas County will soon formally submit the “rural open space” plan amendment to DLCD for review, then wait until April 21 before rezoning any properties under the new designation.

If the agency or another party objects to the change before Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals, proposed zone changes will be put on hold until the challenge is resolved.

A remand from LUBA requiring modifications to the “rural open space” designation could provide a helpful interpretation of the law and make the plan amendment more successful, Cubic said.

In comments submitted on the proposal last year, DLCD worried the county had too narrowly defined agricultural land and set an excessively high productivity standard for livestock and forest land to be protected under the plan.

It’s unclear whether the plan considered the environmental and wildlife benefits of lower-productivity soils, the agency said.

According to DLCD, the county “loosely” concluded that development in rural areas would be economically positive, creating a “discrepancy” with studies that found that added service costs may outweigh any benefits.

The plan refers to accommodating demand for rural housing, which isn’t required under statewide planning goals and may be in “direct conflict” with some of them, the agency said.

Due to these and other concerns, DLCD said the proposal “is not consistent with state statutes and rules.”

Cubic of Douglas County said the revised plan used additional data overlays that exclude higher-quality farm and forestland from acreage available for 20-acre parcels.

Eligible “rural open space” parcels must be within two miles of existing cities and unincorporated rural communities.

However, three towns were disqualified due to the high proportion of surrounding farm and forest zones, inadequate road access, habitat concerns and other issues, he said.

The plan change is also expected to increase housing availability within existing “urban growth boundaries” due to people moving from cities to the rural parcels, Cubic said. “It does provide some rural housing opportunities.”

While the county can approve larger zone changes, most re-designations will occur after requests from individual landowners, he said.

The county didn’t shift all available 22,500 acres into the “rural open space” designation to avoid raising expectations in the event the plan is challenged, he said.

Aside from DLCD, the conservation group 1,000 Friends of Oregon has also been apprehensive about aspects of Douglas County’s proposal.

Greg Holmes, the group’s food systems program director, said he doesn’t yet have the basis to comment on the plan because he hasn’t seen the final adopted version.

Holmes said the public wasn’t able to review details of the revised plan before it was approved, making for a “very opaque process.”