By: Stephen Ostroff, M.D.
Most people, even if they live in cities or suburbs, understand that there are many types of farms. But to really appreciate how different farms can be, you have to get out there and see it for yourself. By visiting farms in different parts of the country, you see first-hand the food safety challenges that are unique to a region. Farms are different sizes, grow a variety of crops and don’t follow the same growing and harvesting practices. There’s a varied amount of rainfall by region and season, and irrigation methods differ by crop and location. And so, while farmers confront some of the same issues, there can be real differences in the challenges they face.
What produce farmers and other food producers have in common is that they face new federal standards for the production of safe food. Seven foundational rules to implement the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) were finalized by May of this year. These include the produce safety rule, which establishes enforceable safety standards for the production and harvesting of most fruits and vegetables on farms in the United States and foreign farms that produce these commodities for the United States. They also include the preventive controls for human food rule, which establishes safety standards applicable to food facilities, including those that process fruits and vegetables.
I, along with my colleagues at FDA and state counterparts, visited the farmlands of the Pacific Northwest and California earlier this fall to get a sense of how growers, packers, processors and other stakeholders are getting ready to meet the new standards that apply to them. In September, we visited apple orchards and packing houses in Washington and berry growers in Oregon. We toured irrigation systems and met with stakeholders who included growers, water resources groups and tribal representatives.
Parreira Almond Processing Company: Dr. Ostroff, left, and manager Paul Parreira Jr. at the almond hulling and shelling facility in Los Banos, CA.
In October, we visited stone fruit, table grape, citrus, and lettuce and strawberry fields in northern California. We toured an almond hulling and shelling operation in a visit coordinated by the Almond Alliance of California, and held a roundtable discussion about California’s water supply with farmers, representatives of industry associations and others. We visited a major processor of salad items. We finished the trip with an early-morning visit to the Golden Gate Produce Terminal in San Francisco, a trove of organic and conventional produce, as well as specialty and ethnic foods.
Produce farms have not been regulated like this before – it’s new territory for both the farming community and for FDA. We were asked many questions and received a great deal of feedback about the new regulations. But we found a strong commitment to providing consumers with safe fruits and vegetables and to moving forward in a collaborative fashion. For our part, I think it’s incumbent on FDA to protect public health without requiring a lot of unnecessary steps or measures that don’t achieve that goal.
These trips also highlighted the fact that that many food producers and industry associations have already invested a lot of time and effort in food safety measures. In some instances, what they have put in place goes beyond what is required under FSMA. In both trips, we saw farmers, other food producers, and industry associations stepping up to address past safety issues, including by developing their own on-farm standards and implementing audits to verify that those standards are met. Some developed treatment protocols and funded research to fill data gaps. These efforts will make it much easier to meet the new federal standards.
Wenatchee (WA) Reclamation District: Manager Rick Smith, center, shows Dr. Ostroff, right, and colleagues an open irrigation canal system.
The big challenge for the growers in the drought-stricken Western states is water. The drought makes it difficult for growers to predict from month to month and season to season how much water will be available, where it will come from, and what it will cost. Therefore, many had questions regarding the produce safety rule’s water quality standards.
Our state regulatory partners in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California brought members of the produce community together to meet us and discuss these issues. I am so grateful for their active involvement in making FSMA a success. Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Lisa Hanson, interim director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Derek Sandison, director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture, and Pamela Juker, representing the director of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, are strong voices for agriculture and food safety in the West, and we value their partnership and continued input. Both they and their staffs understand the farmers and have long-standing relationships with them. Through recently announced produce safety cooperative agreements with FDA, we will be partnering with each of these states and 38 others to implement the new produce safety rule.
We also had the opportunity to visit farms that have been in families for generations. These farmers take great pride in their work and are determined to keep their food safe but still have questions about how to they can comply with the new requirements. The take-home lesson for us was the need to provide adequate education and training and clear guidance that will help these farmers comply with FSMA. Farmers are looking for this and we’re making sure that we can fill these needs.
There was also a lot of discussion about making sure that the information we provide can be understood by people working on farms who are not native English speakers. There is a great deal of diversity in these regions, including the Hmong-American farmers of California’s Central Valley.
So there’s a lot of work ahead of us, and together we will roll up our sleeves to get it done. We went to see farmers and other food producers, and met a lot of talented people who grow and process the food we eat. We found an incredible diversity in the food that is produced, but a shared commitment to having the safest possible food supply.
Stephen Ostroff, M.D. is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine