Kate Woods Staff of the Northwest Horticultural Council on March 9, 2015 in Yakima, Washington. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

Kate Woods

The federal government has extended some key deadlines, most notably those tied to water sampling, for growers and packers who must meet new food safety requirements under the Food Safety Modernization Act’s Produce Safety Rule.

The Food and Drug Administration, charged with implementing the act, also announced plans for improved collaboration with states to ensure both states and industry are well prepared for the new requirements.

Some provisions of the rule have been a source of concern for the tree fruit industry, most notably water sampling requirements.

Industry groups have bemoaned the lack of guidance and training from the FDA, even as compliance dates drew closer, and the agency’s review of acceptable water testing methods seemed incomplete, with only one testing methodology allowed.

Under new FDA guidance released in September, agricultural water compliance dates in the act’s Produce Safety Rule will be delayed.

Large growers with over $500,000 in produce sales would need to begin sampling each agricultural water source on their farms to establish their microbial water quality profile in 2022, rather than 2018.

The deadline is later for smaller farms: For farms with sales between $250,000 and $500,000, the start date is 2023, while farms with sales under $250,000 have until 2024.

These new compliance dates apply to all water quality requirements in the Produce Safety rule, from inspecting a grower’s water system to sampling.

The agency said the reason for the delay was to allow it to reconsider all aspects of the water quality provisions of FSMA.

Officials wanted to consider how practical it would be to implement these requirements at a farm level, especially when considering the diversity of produce production and U.S. regions, said Kate Woods, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council.

Her group focuses on national and international policy issues affecting Pacific Northwest growers and shippers.

“They’ve been very emphatic to folks to not make changes to their current water sampling protocols in order to comply with FSMA, because it’s highly likely that these are going to change,” Woods said. “That’s our recommendation as well. That doesn’t mean growers might not have other reasons to change their water protocol; just don’t do it based on FSMA.”

Nobody inside the industry is looking for a delay for the sake of a delay, Woods said. It’s really a matter of growers and packers getting the information they need to understand what they need to do and to understand the science behind what they need to do.

To that end, the agency also announced it would allow eight additional water testing methodologies, up from just one under the rule.

The tree fruit industry had several concerns on that original idea, including the few number of laboratories that use that one methodology and their capacity to take on the work as well as the price tag.

Even if growers were willing to pay more and had access to a lab, the idea of so few laboratories handling the volume of work was impractical, Woods said.

“Nobody needs to test for a couple of years, so they don’t need to learn about all these methods yet,” she said. But, she added, it’s a positive step because FDA is “clearly listening to the input from stakeholders.”

Outside of water quality requirements, the overall compliance date for the Produce Safety Rule remains unchanged: Jan. 26, 2018, for larger farms. However, FDA announced that inspections to assess compliance with the nonwater requirements of the rule will not begin for produce other than sprouts until 2019.

The rationale for the decision is to provide more time for education, training and outreach on the requirements, Woods said.

FDA has been emphasizing plans to expand on-farm readiness reviews, a program it’s been piloting in six states.

The agency also made a commitment to address the farm definition question, which affects whether packing houses follow rules for farms or for processors, by January.

“Our hope is that all packing houses will be ultimately regulated under the Produce Safety Rule. If a whole apple comes into your facility and a whole apple leaves your facility, you should be considered a farm,” Woods said. “If it’s sliced or changes in some other way, then that’s a processing activity and should be regulated as a processor.” •

– by Shannon Dininny