Commentary: FDA should revise, simplify planned food-safety rules

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By Jamie Johansson

An AgAlert article.

regulatingfoodsafetyEditor’s note: California Farm Bureau Second Vice President Jamie Johansson testified before a state Senate committee last week about impacts to California farmers from proposed rules under the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (see story). The following commentary is adapted from his testimony.

Proposed rules under the federal Food Safety Modernization Act include standards for irrigation water sampling. Farm organizations have asked the Food and Drug Administration to draft new, clearer rules.  Photo/Richard Green
Proposed rules under the federal Food Safety Modernization Act include standards for irrigation water sampling. Farm organizations have asked the Food and Drug Administration to draft new, clearer rules.
Photo/Richard Green

The grower-members of Farm Bureau are committed to producing the safest food in the world. It is their passion. It is their livelihood.

Farm Bureau appreciates the heightened attention given to food safety in recent years by federal officials, most notably beginning with President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group. We believe measures can be taken at the federal level to further enhance the goal of improving the safety of our food. We have a strong record encouraging continued collaboration among the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the private sector, applying the best available science, in order to achieve our collective food safety goals.

Throughout the deliberation of FSMA in Congress, Farm Bureau expressed strong opposition to the idea of creating mandatory, enforceable regulations that define how farmers grow and harvest their crops. Our position against such enforceable regulations is best expressed in the policy statement adopted by our state and national membership:

“We support efforts to develop food safety guidelines to help prevent microbial contamination of fresh produce. The guidelines must … take the form of good agricultural practices rather than federal or state mandates.”

Our policy is not just saying what we don’t want. We support a long list of food safety principles that includes, for example, adequate funding of the government’s food and feed safety and protection functions, increased education and training for inspectors, and research and development of scientifically based rapid testing procedures and tools.

Additionally, we expect the government to provide accurate and timely responses to outbreaks that identify contaminated products, and minimize disruption to producers.

And as a check against unnecessary or unwarranted regulatory intrusion, we support indemnification for producers who suffer marketing losses due to inaccurate government-advised recalls or warnings. While the issue of indemnification is not included in the produce safety rule, we see it as an important discussion item when discussing new mandatory rules and standards.

We look to the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement as a model for creating food safety standards that reflect our position on guidelines. The LGMA is a voluntary agreement with a government oversight component. It was formed with significant input from California leafy-greens growers and handlers, and food safety scientific experts.

The administration and the FDA should be aware that federal regulation requiring farmers to grow and harvest crops in specific ways is unprecedented and, in our view, a broad overreach of executive power. Under a regulatory scheme, the science would have to be foolproof, but it is clear there are still many unanswered scientific questions related to food safety.

The unintended consequences of well-intentioned rules create a climate of over-regulation, unnecessary civil and/or criminal penalties, and competitive disadvantage with our trading partners. In addition, the rules serve to drive the market away from growing regulated or covered crops.

In a time of tightened budgets, it is well-understood that FDA will not have sufficient funds for oversight of this rule. We fear that the California Department of Food and Agriculture will be left to carry the burden of these oversight requirements, and CDFA is not equipped with enough funding to enforce this rule.

Since the produce rule was introduced in January 2013, industry and growers have asked for extensions as each deadline loomed. Currently, industry and growers are almost unanimously asking that the FDA release a follow-up produce rule that would be available for another round of public comment.

We also note that the proposed rule amounts to hundreds of pages and numerous subparts. We ask that a second proposed rule be simplified and reviewed by farmers before publication, so that its requirements are clear and not open to interpretation.

A simplified rule in each of the key areas—water, hygiene, etc.—would encourage increased public comment and more of a collaborative environment among farmers, the food industry and regulators.

As the American Farm Bureau Federation has noted, prior to enactment of FSMA, Farm Bureau urged FDA to focus any produce safety regulations on those commodities or commodity groups that have been associated with foodborne illness. Despite congressional intent in directing FDA to concentrate rulemaking on those commodities, FDA rejected this approach. The FDA should follow congressional intent in its second proposed rule.

We cannot over-emphasize that regulating low- to no-risk commodities will place undue hardship on thousands of California growers. We support variances and/or exemptions of commodities that are examples of raw agriculture commodities with no known foodborne illness outbreaks. We ask that the FDA eliminate the blanket approach taken in the produce rule and instead do what Congress intended: exempt low-risk fruits and vegetables.

California farmers are proud of their food safety record, and their actions show a willingness to adopt innovative food safety practices. As noted earlier, farmers are very much aware that their livelihood depends on the safety of the food they produce. We are accomplishing a great deal as we evolve and enter voluntary agreements.

(Jamie Johansson, an olive grower from Oroville, serves as second vice president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.)