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FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor talks with Clinton Wissel, farmer and president of the Idaho Onion Growers Association, during a tour of the Northwest.

FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor talks with Clinton Wissel, farmer and president of the Idaho Onion Growers Association, during a tour of the Northwest.

The federal government took a humble position and brought a big ear to a meeting with growers and others on the Food Safety Modernization Act, held August 14 in Yakima, Washington.
The Produce Listening Session featured Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, plus other federal and state officials, including Bud Hover, director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Taylor set the tone for the meeting by stressing that implementation of the act, which became law January 2011, required close cooperation between the government and the agriculture community.

The law and its draft implementation rules are complex, governing such matters as the testing and handling of water that irrigates orchards or washes harvested fruit. From time spent in Idaho and Washington State where they visited farms, packing houses and other sites, Taylor and other FDA staff said they know the draft rules need further refinement. Flexibility is a goal. Rules that govern the handling of water in Florida or New England may not make sense for growers east of the Cascades in Washington State.

“We got the message we need further thinking about water,” Taylor said.

The new law triggered many questions, only a few of which could be answered in one meeting. Such as: What about the 7.4 million bins used in Washington State to handle apples and cherries? Can they still be washed out in the traditional way? The answer depends on if a bin classifies as a “food contact surface.”

Growers and others attended the meeting to suggest revisions and flexibility for local conditions, get answers, or, for a few people, gripe about the challenges of a new set of regulations. The FDA is encouraging the agriculture community to submit written comments so its record reflects all issues that need consideration.

Hover, of the state agriculture department, tried to give the law a context by stressing the value of an enhanced system for sustaining public confidence in the food supply. “Whether you like it or not, look at it as an opportunity to protect the industry,” he said.

Taylor and others at the FDA maintain a blog to communicate with the public. The Yakima Herald-Republic did an advance interview with Taylor. The FDA maintains a Web site with information and a comment section on the new law.  Comments are accepted until November 15.