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NOFA staying strongly tuned into First Proposed FDA Food Safety Rules continuum

The Northeast Organic Farming Association is a non-profit organization of over 5,000 farmers, gardeners, landscape professionals and consumers working to promote healthy food, organic farming practices and a cleaner environment. 

NOFA has chapters in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.

organicOrganic sweet red peppers on display. (Photo courtesy of the Northeast Organic Farming Association)The NOFA Interstate Council acts as an umbrella organization for projects of collective concern to NOFA chapters, such as the Northeast Interstate Organic Certification Committee. Each of the seven state chapters comprising NOFA provides educational conferences, workshops, farm tours and printed materials to educate farmers, gardeners, consumers and land care professionals.

NOFA also publishes The Natural Farmer, a quarterly newspaper of the NOFA Interstate Council, which features organic farming techniques, certification issues, environmental developments as they impact farmers and growers, organic market conditions and other topics of interest to the Northeast organic community. An article was published in the spring 2013 edition, titled “First Proposed FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] Food Safety Rules Released for Comment,” by Steve Gilman, NOFA interstate policy coordinator.

In it, Gilman stated that “after a wild two year ride that finally made it through Congress at the 11th hour, followed by another two years of FDA rule-making and then being held back by the Administration until after the elections — the first proposed rules of the Food Safety Modernization Act have been released for a 120 comment period by the Food and Drug Administration.”

Gilman added that the document “is not a light read.” The draft produce safety rule (for farmers) and the draft preventative controls rule (for processing facilities) “comprise a stack some 1,700 pages deep,” he noted. “And some mixed operations might find themselves beholden to both. At stake is how farmers large and small will be regulated in the name of food safety — and how the galloping growth of our local food sector will be impacted.”

He also pointed out that the bottom line for family scale farmers who might be thinking they are exempt from and won’t have to bother with the comment process is to think again, as there is an overriding FDA “material conditions” clause.

“The draft regulations allow FDA to revoke your exemption,” he quotes from the document: “(b) If we determine that it is necessary to protect the public health and prevent or mitigate a food borne illness outbreak based on conduct or conditions associated with your farm that are material to the safety of the food that would otherwise be covered produce grown, harvested, packed or held at your farm.”

“And the ‘Catch-22’ here is that exempt farmers who are not required to keep federal records won’t have the necessary documentation in place to appeal and exonerate their practices should FDA choose to target one’s farm,” said Gilman. “Undoubtedly this open-ended clause needs to be strictly reformed and clarified with burdens of proof and other legal limitations placed on potential FDA action. But FDA plainly has oversight powers, as FSMA requires there be a mechanism for revoking the exemption in the rules.”

Gilman encouraged members, consumers and others to comment on the ruling. The comment period ended on May 16, when the FDA then began taking the comments into account in preparation to write the final rule, “a task requiring months and months,” he said. “The proposed rule has built in compliance times for farmers from two to four years beyond that, depending where they fall in the regulations. Meanwhile, Interstate NOFA will be posting helpful materials at the policy website and there will be wide scale outreach and alerts to help citizens with the comment process. Stay tuned — this wild ride is not over by a long shot.”