We’ve got to continue doing this with the people working on the nation’s farms–since the produce safety rule issued in late 2015 primarily involves them.
This was a lesson learned in our recent trip to southern Florida, where we toured citrus farmlands and took part in a public meeting on the final FSMA rules at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). We found that growers want to meet the new standards in the produce safety rule but need greater clarity and understanding about how the rule can be applied to their specific farm setting.
Florida farmers are under a lot of pressure that has nothing to do with the FSMA rules. The citrus groves there have been hard hit in recent years by a disease called citrus greening that results in stunted, bitter, green fruit and drastically reduced harvests. The stark backdrop to our conversations is that these growers are fighting for survival–and every cost counts.
That makes it especially important that they, and all farmers covered by the produce rule, understand what will be required. And, just as important, what won’t be required.
For example, we talked to growers who have dozens of wells on their farms and are worried about the rule’s water testing requirements and associated costs. But in many cases, only a fraction of those wells are used to apply water in a way that is intended or likely to contact crops during growing, or for other uses that are subject to the microbial water quality criteria in the produce rule.
Some growers pull surface water out of extensive canal systems where the water from any one canal may deliver water to many farmers. Other growers use seep irrigation systems in which the water seeps from a surface water source through the soil. The growers told us that the soil filters the water, which comes in contact with root vegetables like carrots, beets and radishes.
Their questions were: How are we covered by the produce safety rule and how do we achieve compliance? One of the growers produces beets and our answer to him was that beets are not covered because the produce rule exempts specific crops that FDA identified as rarely consumed raw, such as garden beets and sugar beets. We explained that water used in seep irrigation that contacts root crops covered by the rule does have to meet the applicable microbial standard. But farms have the option of establishing and using alternatives for certain agricultural water requirements if they have scientific evidence to support them.
Each region of the country has its own complexities, and Florida has a dramatically diverse landscape of crops, settings, and soils. The soil around Lake Okeechobee transitions from sandy at one end to densely dark muck at the other. Within the citrus industry, agricultural water can come from completely different sources, surface and ground water that have different testing requirements. We at FDA are constantly learning about the complexities that are part of everyday life for our nation’s food producers.
This trip highlighted how important it will be for us to be continually engaged at the local, state and federal levels in collaborative problem solving with growers and others in the food industry as we implement the FSMA rules.
We value the leadership of Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, Deputy Commissioner Lisa Conti and others on their team. We have long been partners with Martha Roberts of UF/IFAS, an authority on food safety issues. And Florida itself is a pioneer in food safety, in 2008 establishing the first mandatory state regulatory program for produce with provisions for inspections and audits for tomato handling, production and packing.
Susan Turcovski, the director of FDA’s Florida District, and her team accompanied us on this visit. They are also on the front lines of implementation and their role will be critical in the months and years ahead. We were joined by Leanne Skelton, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s liaison to FDA on FSMA issues, and spent time at USDA’s Horticultural Research Lab in Fort Pierce.
Education is an important part of our FSMA efforts. Another member of our group was Dr. Michelle Danyluk, one of the leads for the Southern Training, Education, Extension, Outreach, and Technical Assistance Center at the University of Florida. The center is one of four regional centers funded by USDA and FDA that will coordinate and implement FSMA-related training.
We’ve got our work cut out for us but every conversation brings us closer to the food safety system envisioned by FSMA that systematically takes steps to prevent the causes of foodborne illness. Working together, we’ll get there.