11/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The comment period for the Food Safety Modernization Act’s new produce standards will close next Friday.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will then have to sift through the comments and adjust the rules.
How much they will change is yet to be seen. The devil is in the details, and many worry that if another comment period is not allowed, the final rules could remain as murky and uncertain as the initial proposals.
During a meeting Monday of the Pennsylvania State Council of Farm Organizations, Brian Snyder, the council’s president, said that judging by the strong reactions from farm organizations and operators who believe the rules would have an adverse impact on farmers, the new law has done more to unify the agriculture community than any other event.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack “has been trying to unite agriculture since taking office,” Synder said. “FDA united farmers in 10 months.”
The council was meeting at the state Agriculture Department Building in Harrisburg to discuss the law and adopt a policy toward it on behalf of the state’s agricultural organizations.
Jay Howes, deputy state agriculture secretary, and policy specialist Erin Smith discussed the highlights of 30 pages of comments the department plans to submit to FDA before the Nov. 15 deadline.
Smith said the department was one of many groups, including the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, asking for a second comment period after FDA makes updates to the rules.
“We expect many provisions will change dramatically,” she said.
The groups asking for the extension say they want to make sure that the revised standards provide the clarifications requested by many of the people who have studied the proposed standards.
Many of them have said that several of the proposed standards are impractical and based on unproven science.
The standards fall under two broad categories, the produce rule and the preventive controls rule.
The produce rule covers most raw or unprocessed fruits and vegetables. FDA has proposed standards for irrigation water; biological soil amendments of animal origin; health and hygiene; animals in the growing area; and equipment, tools and buildings.
But critics say some of the proposed standards conflict with current policy or have no scientific backing. For instance, the produce rule exceeds national organic produce production standards.
Among the proposed standards challenged by the state ag department are those for water testing and preventive controls that focus on how farm products are handled after they are harvested.
Some of the state’s comments also take aim at the Tester Amendment to the food safety act, which was designed to allow for a small-farm exemption.
The exemption applies to farms with average annual revenues of less than $500,000 for at least three years that sell more than half of their produce either directly to consumers or to retailers and restaurants within the same state or a 275 mile radius of their farms.
For those who grow produce as a sideline to a dairy or livestock operation, overall sales can easily exceed the proposed limits, meaning the farmer would have to fully comply with the regulations for a larger produce operation.
Howes said there also was no process in the proposed rule to reinstate a farm’s exemption if it is lost.
Another focus by the department’s comments is to make sure a “level playing field” remains for U.S.-produced food compared with produce imported from other countries.
Howes said there needs to be more clarification of definitions, such as what constitutes a farm versus a facility.
“It’s all over the place,” he said.
In addition to offering suggestions to the FDA, the ag department will be sending its comments to the state’s congressional delegation.
Smith said more research is needed to improve the health standards for some of the proposed standards.
Using the example of water quality, she said FDA is using the Environmental Protection Agency’s recreational water standards for agriculture water, but there is no scientific food-safety research to back this standard.
Irrigation water standards in the proposed produce rule are four times stricter than World Health Organization standards, she said.
Howes also talked about other challenges with the preventive controls rule. He said the pasteurized milk section should be revised to grandfather in the current Pasteurized Milk Ordnance, instead of what has been proposed by FDA.
The council of farm organizations echoed the ag department in its concerns. In the policy passed by its board, the council stressed the need for “practical regulations” for farmers.
Snyder spoke of his experience lobbying for the bill, specifically about how consumer groups do not want to see manure applied to fields of produce.
The council is also asking the FDA to avoid “unnecessary bureaucracy, paperwork and duplicative procedures that do little more than increase the costs farmers must endure.”
In addition to the discussion about the new food safety standards, Smith spoke of the separate animal feed rule, which was just released this month.
He said the department will be evaluating that rule as well to see how it should respond. The deadline for that round of comments is Feb. 16.