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United Fresh to meet with FDA officials on FSMA at upcoming policy conference

New agricultural water standards is a top item of concern for United Fresh Produce Association leaders, and the industry has until Nov. 15 to comment on the sweeping new food safety rules, David Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology at United Fresh, said during an Aug. 13 webinar.

Expect the new FDA Food Safety Modernization Act rules to be explored at the Sept. 30-Oct. 2 annual Washington Public Policy Conference, where United Fresh gathers top government leaders each year to discuss issues with the industry.

Along with FSMA rules, United Fresh members will get an opportunity to talk to FDA staff on issues such as the cantaloupe sampling assignment, user fees and lessons learned during recalls and outbreaks at a Sept. 2 meeting hosted by the FDA at its College Park, MD, office.

United Fresh is holding a series of webinars on hot-button issues leading up to the WPPC, and during the latest one Gombas focused on the Jan. 16 produce safety rule that contains new standards for agricultural water quality used on covered produce.

"First thing we heard is water is the biggest issue," he said, recounting meetings with United Fresh leaders on the new proposed rules. "Across the board, anybody who's involved with the produce rule has concerns about what FDA has put into the proposed rule regarding pre-harvest uses of water."

The FDA has proposed using as a benchmark a recreational water standard for E. coli for water that has direct contact to covered produce, which includes water used in irrigation, plant protection sprays or frost protection applications. The changes would be big for the industry. Farms would have to conduct mandatory E. coli testing and follow testing frequency. Farms using well water would test water every three months, a protected surface water source every month, and surface water subject to runoff every week.

Some water sources are outside the control of growers, weekly testing is costly and E. coli may not be the best indicator for a water safety standard, Gombas said.

The FDA also needs a better definition of "farm," Gombas said, because the agency has listed many so-called processing steps a farm may routinely follow that may come under the "facility" definition and trigger the more costly preventive controls.

He said he encourages every commodity group to submit comments on the produce and preventive control rules that were proposed in January, and take a look at the two new FSMA rules on imports and third-party audit changes published last month.

The FDA says it's received more than 1,000 comments on the produce safety rule, many of which are asking for more stringent controls, Gombas said.

On a related note, the WPPC meeting will come on the heels of the first public meeting FDA is holding on the latest FSMA rules, the Foreign Supplier Verification Program and standards for accreditation of third-party auditors, in Washington, DC.

Officials from the FDA will present proposed food-safety changes at the Sept. 19-20 meeting and give stakeholders the chance to ask questions and comment on the rules.