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Don’t wait to comply with FSMA requirements, expert warns

December 11, 2016 11:23 am0 commentsViews: 20

ORLAND, Calif. — Growers and other agricultural businesses shouldn’t wait until next year’s deadlines to begin complying with the Food Safety Modernization Act’s requirements, an industry expert advises.

Federal officials are already inspecting large processing facilities for preventive controls for human food and animal feed, whose deadlines were in September, warned Roger Isom, president and chief executive officer of the Western Agricultural Processors Association.

Under those requirements, facilities must implement a written food safety plan that includes an analysis of hazards and risk-based preventive controls, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The next compliance dates are March 31 for sanitary transportation measures and April 31 for a foreign supplier verification program. The big one for most conventional farmers — the produce safety rule — must be implemented by Dec. 31, 2017.

“FSMA is here,” Isom told growers, processors and educators Nov. 16 at the North State Precision Ag Expo and Farm Business Forum in Orland. “If you thought this was something you could plan for next year … no. You need to be doing it now.”

Isom said he knows of nine facilities in California that have been visited by FDA officials since the human and animal food regulations took effect, signaling there will likely be little wiggle room for compliance once the other deadlines pass.

“Do not wait,” Isom said. “You need to be doing this stuff now.”

FDA spokeswoman Jennifer Dooren said she isn’t aware of any FSMA-related inspections, although she cautioned that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. She said FSMA compliance may have been included in previously planned inspections of large mixed-use facilities that were already subject to FDA regulation.

She said the preventive controls rules merely codify “what a lot of them have already been doing,” such as hazard analyses.

“Our main goal is to really work with the industries and help them understand the rules,” Dooren said, “and to work with them to beef up their food safety plans as needed.”

The push comes as the largest farms and businesses are ramping up their food-safety measures in preparation for FSMA, which the FDA calls the most sweeping reform of food safety laws in more than 70 years.

Isom told producers and processors the law “is going to change every aspect of what you do,” from how bathroom breaks are handled to voluminous record-keeping and analyzing supplied materials such as boxes.

Employers will have to show they’re verifying that employees are following requirements, such as keeping equipment clean, he said.

The biggest impact on farms will be from the wide-ranging produce safety rule, which was finalized in 2015. It establishes minimum standards for safety in growing, harvesting, packing and holding fruits and vegetables for human consumption.

State agriculture departments will receive millions of dollars in grants from FDA to educate farmers about the rule. The California Department of Food and Agriculture, which is receiving $11.7 million over five years, will contract with outside organizations to provide training next year, spokesman Steve Lyle said.

“The plan is to provide growers the necessary tools to comply with the rule prior to beginning inspections,” Lyle said in an email.

While the deadline for most farms to comply is the end of next year, businesses that sell less than $500,000 in produce annually will have until the end of 2018 to follow the produce rule, while the smallest businesses — those with annual produce sales between $25,000 and $250,000 — will have until the end of 2019.

Isom advised business owners facing inspections to be respectful of agents, but added it’s acceptable to ask questions and to gather your own evidence while the inspection is underway in case an appeal is necessary.

“If they take swabs, take a swab, too,” he said. “Talk to your industry groups and see if they put out guidance. … This thing is here.”

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