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.”