Now that the Food & Drug Administration has proposed two new food-safety regulations, Produce Marketing Association experts jumped in front Jan. 17 to lay out the new proposals and field questions from members during back-to-back webinars.
Required under the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, the two regulations, released Jan. 4, propose new safety standards for produce and new preventive controls for a wide variety of FDA-registered food facilities. Comments on the more than 1,200-page rules are due May 16.
Imported produce will have to comply with produce safety standards, and companies following Global Food Safety Initiative-style programs may be "98 percent there" but will need "some tweaking" to comply, said Bob Whitaker, PMA's chief science and technology officer, who responded to a handful of questions during the produce safety webinar.
"If you are involved in food-safety programs, look at these rules carefully. Is there something missing?" he asked PMA members.
Dr. Whitaker and Tom O'Brien, PMA's Washington representative, who also fielded questions during the two webinars, said that PMA members should be scrutinizing FDA's current thinking on new produce requirements, the types of farm activities excluded from the rule and the exemptions carved out for commodities, either those not eaten raw by consumers or diverted to processors.
A participant asked why farms don't have to have food-safety plans yet must comply with new requirements for agricultural water testing, biological soil amendments, hygiene and other new federal controls.
"I'll be frank with you — I was surprised not to see that," Dr. Whitaker said. "But FDA is trying real hard not to be too burdensome with some of the paperwork and recordkeeping." This is one of the areas FDA is asking for comment on.
Often the industry "lets food safety happen to us," and this is one time "we need to be proactive," he said, referring to the need for industry to comment on what works and what won't work in the proposal.
The PMA team followed with an hour-long webinar on the preventive-controls proposal that requires registered FDA food facilities to conduct a hazard assessment and write a food-safety plan, which must contain provisions for monitoring the controls, conducting corrective actions, validating food-safety measures and maintaining a recall plan.
Owners and operators of a facility are responsible for the food-safety plan, and the plan must be facility-specific and written by a "qualified individual."
The definition of qualified individual is one item the FDA may not have made clear enough in the proposal. "I don't think the proposal offers many clues on how someone gets qualified," Dr. Whitaker said, adding that may be an issue that needs more fleshing out.
Also, PMA members learned that packing operations registered as facilities must comply with the new rule, even if they handle fresh produce exempt under the produce-safety requirements.
While PMA called on members to engage in helping shape changes to the two regulations, they stressed the new rules won't go into effect overnight.
For produce safety, most farms would have two years to comply, small businesses will have three years and very small businesses some four years to have most produce-safety regulations in place.
The FDA allows all farms two additional years to meet the agricultural water standards. Under the food-facility proposal, most plants will have one year to institute new preventive controls, and two to three years for small businesses, depending on how the FDA defines them.