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Fresh fruit industry is well prepared to comment on upcoming Food Safety and Modernization Act proposal.

Robert Guenther

Robert Guenther

United Fresh Produce Association’s Robert Guenther was wrong in so many of his predictions of when the proposed regulations for the new federal food safety act would be made public, that he has grown tired of trying to second-guess their release. But, with the deadline for the draft proposal missed by almost a year and election year politics behind, he is confident the draft rules will be released by the end or this year or in the first few weeks of 2013.

Guenther told tree fruit growers and shippers attending food safety talks earlier this week held at the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting in Yakima that he believes the proposal will be published in the Federal Register within five weeks. “It’s something that’s going to happen, but we will have time to provide input and try to amend the regulations,” said the senior vice president for public policy who’s based near Washington, D.C.

“We’re ready for the proposal,” Guenther said, noting that a broad coalition of fresh fruit and vegetable associations has been working together for more than a year, sharing input with U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials and gathering science-based information that can be used to support industry practices.

The food safety draft has been in the queue for months. It’s rumored that review has been completed by the Office of Management and Budget as well as outside agencies that are affected, such as the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture.

The draft is believed to be 600 to 800 pages, Guenther said. “There is quite a challenge in front of us when you look at the in-depth review that will be needed to get through all those pages.”

Food safety act components

The four major areas of the Food Safety and Modernization Act that affect fresh fruit and vegetable producers are:

  •  Science-based minimum standards will be developed for the safe production and harvest of produce.
  •  Producers will be required to develop a food safety plan.
  •  Importers will need to verify that their suppliers are in compliance with the act.
  •  Retail and foodservice industry will need to change how they post recall notices.

Once the draft is published in the Federal Register, a minimum of 75 days will be allowed to receive public comment. However, Guenther says a longer comment period is likely, due to the comprehensive scope of the regulations. Three public meetings to receive comment will be held across the country. After review of all the comments, the FDA will publish a final rule in the Federal Register.

“We expect FDA to receive thousands of comments,” he said. “It’s important that the fresh produce industry speak with a unified voice. You can say ‘I hate it,’ but it’s the rule of law, and we need to provide alternatives and solutions when we make comments.”

Good news

He shares that the good news is that a strong working group representing the tree fruit industry is in place to provide feedback. United Fresh, the U.S. Apple Association, Northwest Horticultural Council, and others will be developing responses in a coordinated manner. “I feel good that the industry is ready once the rules are published, and from day one we will be able to look at the document in a detailed and thorough manner to address the issues.”

The law was not perfect in how it was made. It was passed in the closing hours of Congress in 2010 and without compromise to iron out differences in the House and Senate versions. “The Senate version was used, and there are a lot of areas in the law that are not as clear as they could be,” Guenther said. He believes the law will see revisions down the road, though not immediately.