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FDA officials explore produce safety changes at United Fresh webinar

by Joan Murphy | September 07, 2011

WASHINGTON — Produce businesses tuned in Aug. 30 for a United Fresh Produce Association-sponsored webinar to hear the latest news on the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s “current thinking” regarding implementing yet-to-be-released produce safety regulation.

A combination of third-party auditors, state authorities, the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service will likely be on the front-lines in enforcing the new science-based standards for the safe growing, harvesting, sorting, packing and storage of fresh fruits and vegetables, said Mike Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, during the hour-long webinar.

The traditional inspection and enforcement model used at food plants will not be feasible for the hundreds of thousands of produce operators, he said. The first step, though, is to get growers the technical support and education they need to comply with the law, he said.

With federal spending likely to be rolled back, the agency will have to become more efficient, redeploy current resources and take a long look at what it can do, such as whether the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act’s goal of inspecting 19,000 foreign facilities a year in 2016 makes sense, Mr. Taylor explained.

The act will lead to a wide range of new programs that will change food regulation, including new import controls, sanitary transportation regulations and new record access demands.

The FDA plans in the coming weeks to announce the launch of two pilot programs to test traceability systems in the food industry, another mandate of the act, the FDA’s top food-safety official said.

Other changes might ease the burden of implementing the produce safety rule, likely to be released in the spring of 2012.

The FDA is considering additional exemptions from federal produce safety rules, other than the one for small business that was championed by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), for farms that grow produce always consumed in a cooked form, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and artichokes.

“These would pose no risks and there would be no benefits derived from regulating them through this regulation,” said Don Kraemer, the FDA’s acting deputy director of the Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition, another speaker on the webinar.

United Fresh is producing a series of webinars in the ramp up to its Washington Public Policy Conference in October.

Produce that will be treated with a kill step and sent to pickling or canning facilities might also fall under an exemption, Mr. Kraemer added, stressing that the draft rule is “dynamic” and could change.

He also indicated that the FDA might favor regulating the risk of produce not by commodity but by the production process.

“We spent an awful lot of effort trying to come up with a list of high-risk commodities,” he said. But the more the FDA considered it, the more it questioned the approach as scientifically based.

Risky practices, such as poor water quality or application of raw manure, may drive the level of controls, not the commodity itself, Mr. Kraemer said.

The approach would pay off for row-crop farms that would have to follow the same set of controls for each crop, he said.