State Ag Committees Probe Food Safety Rules

4/20/2013 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor

New Resource Centers to Play Important Role

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Food Safety Modernization Act has mandated sweeping changes for food production and safety.

The law gives the Food and Drug Administration additional regulatory powers, and asks farmers and food producers for additional record-keeping and preventive planning.

In Pennsylvania, the responsibility for educating those affected by the changes will fall to the state Department of Agriculture and Penn State Extension.

To make sure they have the resources to fulfill that responsibility, the state House and Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committees held a joint hearing last week to discuss what the new federal rules will mean for Pennsylvania.

The new FDA produce safety regulations were posted in January. Public comments on the proposed rules will be accepted until May 16.

Joel Rotz, chairman of the Penn State Ag Council, which was at the Capitol last week for its annual legislative day, said Penn State and the state Agriculture Department are organizing three resource centers — plant, animal and food safety.

On behalf of the council, he urged committee members to provide funding for the centers because “they will play an important role” with the education and enforcement of the new federal law.

No one disputed the value or importance of food safety, but several questions were raised during the two-hour hearing about the practicality of the proposed rules, such as who is going to pay for the inspections and how will the FDA account for regional differences in food production?

Lee Showalter, Rice Fruit Co.’s food safety and grower services manager, said no one wants to be the cause of a foodborne outbreak, but a “one size fits all approach” for produce raises questions.

Rice Fruit Co. is the largest apple-packing facility in the Eastern United States. It markets whole tree fruit and does not have any processed products.

Most growers already employ good agricultural practices, or GAPs, which are audited as part of their marketing contracts.

“It’s what we don’t know that causes us to pause in responding to the proposed regulation,” Showalter said, pointing out that little safety research has been done on whole, fresh tree fruits because there have not been any foodborne illness problems with them.

He said the part of the proposed regulations he has a problem with are the agricultural water requirements. Irrigation water for orchards will not be affected because it is applied through a drip line. However, water used for crop-protecting sprays will be because it comes in contact with the fruit.

Showalter said he has plenty of questions about the water testing mandates, such as how many times to test during a growing season, where growers will have to go for testing, what it will cost and whether the quality standards make sense for whole fruits.

He said he believes the requirement for fencing to restrict wild animal access is not needed because tree fruits do not come in contact with animal manure.

Ross Pifer of the Penn State Agricultural Law and Resource Center reminded committee members that it’s only FDA’s regulations that are being expanded. USDA rules will remain the same.

Hilary Thesmar of the Food Marketing Institute stressed that now is the time to make comments about the FDA proposal.

“Once it’s there, it’s there for ever and ever,” she said.

Thesmar said she believes the FDA needs to move some of its lists, such as exempted produce, to a separate document so updates can be easily made.

She also sees challenges for small producers. Although they might be exempt from portions of the new regulations, retail outlets could place stricter requirements on them as a liability precaution.

Exceptions to the new regulations will apply to producers who grow products that are rarely consumed raw, who make less than $25,000 a year or who qualify for a small farm exemption.

The small farm exemption is for farms making less than $500,000 on average each year and sell more than half of their produce directly to consumers, or to retailers or restaurants within the same state or a 275 mile radius of their farms.

Rep. John Maher, chairman of the House Ag Committee, expressed concern that this is a wide reaching proposal, but not much has been defined yet, leaving farmers wondering what they are supposed to do.

Pifer said the Congressional Research Service has a chart that breaks down the regulations, required actions and what has been completed to date. He recommends the website as a good source to keep up to date on the proposed regulations.

Luke LaBorde, Penn State food science professor, pointed out that foodborne outbreaks entail high costs to farmers and processors.

A loss in consumer confidence from a foodborne illness outbreak can be devastating, he said, and the new laws take a preventive, not reactive, approach to food safety.

However, he said, this will require a highly trained workforce, and Penn State is already responding by holding food safety training for all sectors of the food system.

“We anticipate many more regular trainings will be needed for many more growers as FDA rules are finalized,” LaBorde said, “and training materials will need to take into account language and cultural aspects of how citizens handle fresh produce.”

With the tightening budget at Penn State, he said, the resource centers would be able to help Penn State meet these needs.

Lydia Johnson, director for the bureau of food safety at the state Department of Agriculture, said her staff will “play an integral part of this,” having historically completed inspections for other federal food safety programs as part of interagency agreements.

She said her staff members view themselves as “regulators and educators,” and they have held several meetings with farmers and other stakeholders to discuss the proposed rules, specifically areas up for comment.

A collaborative website was developed from the meetings to encourage an open exchange with other stakeholders, and a meeting was arranged at the Farm Show Complex with a staff person from FDA to provide additional information.

Johnson said the food safety resource center offers an “opportunity for the stakeholders to pull together information on the rules and the opportunity for our regulators to be trained and to receive education.”

Once the rules are finalized, she said, the food safety staff will be tasked with learning the law to be a part of the inspection process.

Two unknowns are what inspections her staff will be required to complete and what financial compensation the department will receive.

She said the department already has received several grants. One is a rapid response grant to develop a manual to help the agencies address a food safety emergency in the state. Other grants are for standardizing inspections on the processing side and for adding staff.

“I think it’s more important now than ever before that we find the $300,000 in the budget to fill some gaps,” said state Sen. Elder Vogel, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

LaBorde said he believes the new resource center will help growers. With the new rules, he said, additional training and follow-up will be needed to help producers prepare their plans and reporting systems.

Quoting Ernest Hemmingway, he said, “ The scariest thing in life is a blank sheet of paper’ and that is what growers are facing.”

He said his department is working to develop worksheets to help with the reporting process.

Sen. Judy Schwank asked LaBorde if Penn State could take on this additional workload in its training efforts.

LaBorde admitted he did not know, saying, “We struggle from year to year to keep this program going.”

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