Proposed regulations to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act could bring dramatic changes to the growing, harvest, and packing of tree fruit. Although state, regional, and national trade groups are coordinating responses to the draft rule on behalf of the tree fruit industry, growers, too, should share their concerns, industry leaders say.

In mid-January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released two draft proposals:

•    The Proposed Rule for Produce: Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption, referred to as the Produce Safety Rule
•    The Proposed Rule on Produce Safety Standards and Preventive Controls for Human Food, also referred to as the Preventive Controls Rule for Food Facilities

The two proposals are the cornerstone of FDA’s implementation of the food safety act signed into law in 2010. The agency plans to release other proposed rules this year, including one dealing with foreign suppliers and imported food.

The Produce Safety Rule directly touches growers, proposing to regulate such things as agricultural water (irrigation, chemical sprays, overhead evaporative cooling), picking containers and bins, and even animal intrusion into fields and orchards.

The main subparts of the rule include:

•    Equipment, tools, buildings, and sanitation
•    Biological soil amendments
•    Domesticated and wild animals
•    Worker health and hygiene
•    Agricultural water

In the wild animal section, FDA states that the rule does not require farms to be fenced, but if evidence of animal intrusion is apparent, evaluation must be made whether the produce can be safely harvested. “For example, if you see evidence of bird excreta on a head of lettuce, you would not be allowed to harvest it,” stated the FDA fact sheet for the Produce Safety Rule.

The most problematic area is the agricultural water section. FDA has identified agricultural water as a route of contamination. Thus, all agricultural water that comes in contact with produce (used in direct irrigation, chemical sprays, or evaporative cooling) must be sanitary. Testing of water, recordkeeping, and follow-up are required. If certain levels of generic Escherichia coli are exceeded, the grower must immediately discontinue use of that water source and take specified follow-up actions, such as making changes to the water system, retesting or treating the water.

Grower comments

There are plenty of areas in which growers should share their concerns and perspectives, says Christian Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council. Moreover, it’s never been easier for growers to comment on the proposals.

“Individual growers affected by the rule should feel comfortable in going to the Federal Register Web site to make comments,” said Schlect, who represents Idaho, Oregon, and Washington tree fruit growers and shippers in federal issues and is based in Yakima, Washington. “It’s extremely easy and painless—you don’t have to write a formal letter and worry about addresses. It’s as easy as typing in a box on the Web site.”

He encourages growers to read the Produce Safety Rule or have someone in the family or company read it and then share their views with FDA on what it will cost growers to implement, how it will change existing practices, or any specific issues pertaining to a grower’s particular situation.

The Federal Register Web site also allows viewers to read all comments that have been submitted. Public comment deadline is May 16.

“The Food and Drug Administration is looking to hear from a lot of people,” Schlect told Good Fruit Grower. “The agency needs to be aware of how it will impact growers.”

Schlect also wants tree fruit growers to know that a host of organizations have been working on food safety issues on their behalf for some time and are developing comments on the proposed rules.

In food safety matters, the Hort Council draws on the expertise of the Pacific Northwest Food Safety Committee, chaired by Warren Morgan of Double Diamond Fruit Company in Quincy, Washington. Tree fruit grower and packer representatives comprise the committee that is staffed by the Hort Council.

To facilitate review of the rules and develop industry comments, the Food Safety Committee divided into four ­subcommittees:

•    Water/equipment
•    Tools and buildings
•    Animal intrusion/soil amendments
•    Health and hygiene

More than 40 orchard and packing house representatives and researchers from Washington, Oregon, and the East Coast serve on the four subcommittees.

The Food Safety Committee has a narrow focus as it reviews the regulations, Schlect says. “We’re just interested in the areas that really make a difference for apples, pears, cherries, and stone fruits.”

Additionally, the tree fruit industry is well represented at the national level on food safety. The U.S. Apple Association has convened a food safety committee, chaired by Schlect. “Through USApple, orchardists in Michigan, New York, Washington, and other states are working together so that we can present as united a front as we can to FDA,” he said.

United Fresh Produce Association and Produce Marketing Association are also actively formulating responses from the produce industry. The Northwest Hort Council’s Deborah Carter serves on United Fresh’s packer-shipper food safety committee.

United Fresh’s Dr. David Gombas was recently appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods, a committee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. The committee provides recommendations to USDA and the health department on criteria for microorganisms that indicate whether foods have been adequately processed.

“The Northwest fruit industry’s role with the national produce groups is to bring in the grower perspective so that the organizations’ positions are not harmful to growers,” Schlect said. Trade groups like United Fresh and PMA include broad membership, from producers to shippers and marketers to retailers—interests that aren’t always perfectly aligned.

The Hort Council is also developing alliances with the national citrus, table grape, and soft fruit industries in an effort to convince the federal government to reconsider its standards on commodities that have never had a food safety incident.