Even as retailers continue to up the ante by adding more restrictive food safety requirements for produce suppliers, tree fruit growers and packers will soon be faced with yet another layer of complex requirements to meet — this time to comply with federal law.

Food Safety Act - FDA

The seven regulations that implement the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) are now final, with staggered implementation dates over the next few months and years based on the rule and size of operation.

Those who sell culls as animal feed will need to monitor the Preventive Controls for Animal Food rule.

Packers who import fruit will need to understand the Foreign Supplier Verification rule, and fork lift drivers on the loading dock will be required under the Sanitary Transportation rule to inspect each truck for cleanliness.

However, the two rules that will most heavily impact our industry are the Produce Safety rule and the Preventive Controls for Human Food (PCHF) rule.

The 801-page Produce Safety rule with explanatory text represents the first time the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will regulate on-farm practices — a daunting prospect.

The rule, which will impact all commercial orchards and many packing houses, sets specific standards and requirements to prevent or mitigate six potential routes of contamination for produce:

—Agricultural water.
—Biological soil amendments of animal origin (i.e., manure used as fertilizer — primarily impacting organic growers).
—Worker hygiene and health.
—Equipment, tools and sanitation.
—Domesticated and wild animals.
—Growing, harvesting, packing and holding activities.

The rule will be enforced through inspections by FDA, or state officials on behalf of FDA, and includes comprehensive paperwork requirements to prove that growers are in compliance with each provision.

Growers and packers must adhere to this rule by Jan. 26, 2018, with an additional two years provided to comply with the water standards. Those with under $500,000 in annual sales will have more time. Exemptions apply for fruit that is sent to a processor with a kill step, such as for apple juice or canned pears.

Much of the rule dictates practices that are already widespread within our industry due to existing audit requirements.

The water provisions are the biggest departure from current industry practice, and likely the most costly. Specifically, the rule sets water quality standards for any water that touches the “harvestable portion of the fruit” or a fruit contact surface.

To prove they are meeting this standard, growers who use surface water have two to four years before water provisions go into effect to conduct 20 tests on each water source. To take advantage of the full four years the rule provides, that means sampling needs to begin this year for most growers.

After these initial 20 samples, growers will be required to conduct five tests annually on each surface water source.

Options are provided in the event that a test comes in above the stated threshold, including a die-off period between the last day of irrigation and harvest.

The training requirements included in the rule should also be given special attention. Much like existing audit requirements, the rule requires employees who handle fruit or a food contact surface be trained in hygiene.

This training must occur annually and must be documented with the date of the training included, something that will be a challenge with a seasonal workforce.

Also new is a requirement that each orchardist have at least one staff member who has received specialized food safety training with curriculum that is equivalent to what has been approved by FDA. Unfortunately, the release of this curriculum has been delayed until at least September, making it more difficult for growers to prepare for implementation.

The second rule that will have a significant impact on the tree fruit industry is the PCHF rule, which will go into effect Sept. 19 for larger packing houses that do not fall under the Produce Safety rule. Smaller facilities will have an additional one to two years to comply.

This 930-page rule with explanatory text, which was written for large food processors like Kraft Foods but will impact some tree fruit packing houses and storage facilities because of a wonky farm definition, requires facilities to develop and implement a food safety plan that:

—Analyzes the hazards that may exist.
—Identifies preventive controls to reduce these hazards.
—Identifies techniques to monitor whether these preventive controls are working.
—Identifies corrective actions to be taken if the preventive control fails.
—Identifies methods to verify that the preventive control is working.
—Identifies methods to verify that orchardists are complying with the Produce Safety rule.

The PCHF rule also requires that each facility have a person on staff who has taken the equivalent of FDA-approved training.

While the curriculum for this training has been released and trainings made available, the Northwest Horticultural Council (NHC) has expressed concerns to the FDA and policymakers that it does not adequately address how fresh produce packing houses are expected to comply with this processor-oriented rule.

So what is the next step for growers and packers who will need to be in compliance with these massive, confusing regulations?

First, be aware of the compliance dates for the rules that will affect you and start thinking about what changes you may need to make at your operation to become compliant.

Second, don’t assume that you have as much time as FDA is giving you; private audit schemes that your customers require are already beginning to incorporate FSMA into their program requirements.

We know there are a lot of questions about how to implement these policies on the farm. For example, how does FDA define “each water source” when a grower obtains his or her water from an open-ditch canal?

What preventive controls are acceptable for tree fruit packing houses where there is no “kill” step to eliminate pathogens?

The NHC and other produce groups are pushing FDA to release guidance for industry that addresses these types of questions.

We will also continue to push FDA to make the Preventive Controls curriculum more applicable for tree fruit packing houses, and to release the Produce Safety curriculum as soon as possible so that growers have adequate time to prepare.

In addition, the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission continues to support research into the most critical food safety questions for the industry, while the Washington State Tree Fruit Association will continue to provide FSMA training as additional curriculum and guidance become available. •

– by Kate Woods, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council.