Progress on FSMA: Getting Down to Implementation

By: Michael R. Taylor

This is the second of two FDA Voice blogs about state listening sessions on updates to four of the rules proposed to implement the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

It appears to me that people all over the country are rolling up their sleeves and preparing to make FSMA a reality.

Michael R. Taylor is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine.My team and I have just returned from visits to Georgia, North Carolina and Florida, states that are top producers of the fruits and vegetables that the world enjoys. We were there for listening sessions on the updates, or supplements, that FDA published in September to four proposed FSMA rules overseeing human and animal foods, both domestic and imported. Earlier in the month we visited California and Vermont for similar meetings.

When we visited states last year to discuss the FSMA rules that FDA originally proposed, beginning in January 2013, there were strong feelings that some aspects of our original proposals, such as the water quality standard, would be overly costly and not adequately adaptable to the range of production practices and conditions across the country. Farmers, manufacturers and importers want their foods to be safe, but they want rules that are as targeted as possible to risk and are practical to implement. We listened to their concerns, and we reviewed a wide range of written comments. They all formed the basis for the supplemental proposals that we issued in September, which have been well received.

During these most recent state visits, all of which were hosted by the heads of state agriculture departments, we heard continued support for FSMA and the need to implement it well, with mostly clarifying questions about the content of the rules. In fact, most of the discussion revolved around what has to be done once the rules take effect. We’re getting down to the nitty gritty of implementation.

Our day in Georgia began with breakfast with Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black and Natalie Adan, director of the agriculture department’s Food Safety Division. The conversation centered on the importance of our partnerships with the states. FDA will be relying heavily on its state counterparts to provide training, technical assistance and compliance oversight.

There was also an appreciation, and a strong sense of priority, expressed by Commissioner Black and all of the state agriculture leaders, that the proposed FSMA rules will hold imported foods to the same standards as those produced in this country. That levels the playing field in the eyes of U.S. food producers, and it is also essential for food safety.

In all three Southern States, as well as in Vermont and California, there was some confusion about some of the specific terms of the proposed rules, especially the water quality and testing requirements. We are committed to providing clear guidance so that expectations are understood, as well as education, technical assistance and practical tools to facilitate compliance.

In North Carolina, we received a warm welcome from Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler who, as an elected official, has made food safety a campaign issue and a priority for his leadership and his department. In the listening session, Debbie Hamrick of the North Carolina Farm Bureau was very interested in how we will train our workforce to go out onto the farms, and how farmers will know how to meet the requirements. She offered to rent a bus and fill it with FDA officials and farmers to tour the area. Our reply: You’re on. She wants to work with us and we want to work with her.

We were also asked how we’re going to pay for all this and that brought up the critical issue of funding, which is a concern. It is urgent that FDA receive adequate funding for the training, technical assistance, state partnerships and import oversight that is essential for sound implementation of the FSMA rules beginning in late 2016 and 2017.

Florida was the final leg of this journey, which was fitting given Florida’s history of commitment to agriculture and food. Adam Putnam, the commissioner of agriculture, is a former U.S. congressman who had a leadership role in getting FSMA enacted. And Florida has been a pioneer in food safety, enacting seven years ago mandatory on-farm safety standards for the growing of tomatoes.

The listening session took place at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Driving there, we left the interstate highway to find ourselves suddenly in the midst of tomato fields, citrus groves and grazing cattle. We may think of Disney and spring training when we think of Florida, but agriculture is woven into the fabric of the state.

It was great to see Martha Rhodes Roberts, a long-time food safety leader in Florida, who moderated our listening session. As in Georgia and North Carolina, the Florida audience was a diverse mix of growers and people involved in various aspects of the food industry. The people we met in all three states appreciated both the changes we proposed in the supplemental rules and the continuing dialogue we are having on their implementation. They are ready now to get the job done.

I’d like to close with a reminder that the deadline for commenting on the four proposed supplemental rules for Produce Safety, Preventive Controls for Human Food, Preventive Controls for Animal Food and Foreign Supplier Verification Programs is Dec. 15. Visit our FSMA page on fda.gov for more information.

Michael R. Taylor is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine

From Wariness to Welcome: Engaging New England on Food Safety

By: Michael R. Taylor

This is the first of two FDA Voice blogs about state listening sessions on updates to four of the rules proposed to implement the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

What a difference a year makes.

In August last year, my team and I visited New England to talk about the rules proposed in 2013 to implement FSMA. We were met with skepticism and some genuine fear that our produce safety proposals did not take full account of local growing practices and would both disrupt traditional practices and deter innovation. These weren’t easy conversations, but they proved instrumental in FDA’s decision to propose—on Sept. 29, 2014—updates, or supplements, to four of the proposed FSMA rules overseeing human and animal foods, both domestic and imported. These proposals include significant changes in the produce safety proposal and related elements of the preventive controls rules for food facilities.

Michael R. Taylor is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine.We weren’t quite sure what to expect when we flew to Vermont on Sunday, November 16, for a listening session the next day on the proposed supplemental rules. But the tenor of this visit was dramatically different, and very positive, beginning with the detour we took from our FSMA mission on Sunday to visit leading players in Vermont’s local food movement and artisanal cheese-making community.

Accompanied by Vermont Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross, we first toured the Vermont Food Venture Center (VFVC) in Hardwick, a regional food hub that leases space to small food businesses, providing kitchen equipment, food storage and business consultations. The goal of this modern, well-equipped facility, as executive director Sarah Waring explained, is to strengthen Vermont’s local food network and agricultural economy.

We then toured Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, a renowned maker of artisanal cheeses.  We were welcomed by brothers Mateo and Andy Kehler, who have taken an innovative approach to making cheese, using both traditional methods and the latest technology. Their goal is to establish a network of local farms that supply the milk, with Jasper Hill aging and distributing the cheeses in an effort to support small dairy operations.

Our goal was to continue the dialogue we started this year with the cheese-making community to better understand, as food safety regulators, what goes into making artisanal cheeses. We learned a lot, tasted some great cheese, and left impressed by the community-oriented commitment at both VFVC and Jasper Hill Farm, and by their use of top-tier tools to strengthen Vermont’s local food system.

When we arrived back in Montpelier Sunday night, the setting was like something out of a postcard. This picturesque town, the nation’s smallest state capital, was dusted in the season’s first snow, which only accentuated its natural beauty and charm. We were happy to be there.

Monday morning we drove to the Vermont Law School in South Royalton for the FSMA listening session. This school, set in the rolling landscape of rural Vermont, is renowned for its commitment to sustainable environmental practices.

We saw familiar faces. Some had come to the meeting directly from their farm—through the snow. There were people from all over the Northeast—people who had participated in our series of listening sessions throughout New England in 2013. But this time, the response and dialogue were different. We heard acknowledgement and appreciation that we had addressed many of their concerns in our revised proposals by making the proposed rules more feasible, while still meeting our public health goals.

Much of the discussion focused on implementation of the rules, and, interestingly, some of the concerns echoed those we had heard in a November 6 listening session in Sacramento, CA, a place not only on the opposite side of the country but so different in its production systems. Many are finding the complexity of the proposed rules daunting, such as the technical underpinnings of the E.coli benchmark for water quality and the various boundary lines and exemptions that determine who is covered. We’ve always said that we wouldn’t take a “one size fits all” approach, which has contributed to making the rules more complicated. This only underscores our responsibility to explain the rules clearly and to provide education, technical assistance and guidance.

Secretary Chuck Ross said early and often that we need to educate before and as we regulate. And he’s right. I am struck anew by the importance of our partnerships with state leaders. Vermont’s Ross and California Secretary of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross have been invaluable in helping us develop these rules, as they will continue to be as we move towards implementation.

We were grateful for the participation in the listening session by food safety advocates Lauren Bush and Gabrielle Meunier, who each spoke of the devastating effects of foodborne illnesses. Lauren almost died after eating a salad contaminated by E.coli in 2006 and Gabrielle’s young son fought, and recovered from, a Salmonella infection in 2008 after eating tainted peanut butter crackers. Their stories underscore the underlying reason for the effort that so many are making to implement FSMA—to keep people safe.

Some participants expressed the view that even though we decided to defer, pending further study, our decision on an appropriate interval between the application of raw manure and harvest, some kind of interval is needed to protect crops from pathogens. Some suggested that the 90 to 120-day intervals set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program be adopted as an interim measure.

Others inquired how the FSMA rules would affect them based on very individual scenarios. We asked them, and we’re asking everyone, to comment on the supplemental rules and include those scenarios for us to consider in drafting the final rules. We don’t want to create unintended harmful consequences.

The deadline for commenting on the four supplemental rules for Produce Safety, Preventive Controls for Human Food, Preventive Controls for Animal Food and Foreign Supplier Verification Programs is Dec. 15. Visit our FSMA page on fda.gov for more information.

Our Vermont trip was followed by state listening sessions in Georgia, North Carolina and Florida. I will be filing another FDA Voice blog on what we learned in those Southern states.

Michael R. Taylor is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine

Your Input is Bringing Change to Food Safety Rules

By: Michael R. Taylor

Michael R. TaylorYou spoke. We heard you.

We began 2013 with the proposal in January of two rules required by the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act: the Produce Safety Rule and Preventive Controls for Human Food. The former would set science-based standards for the produce industry while the latter would set safety requirements for food facilities.

We were determined from the beginning to be transparent in our processes and to engage all stakeholders in the work of crafting final regulations that would work across the broad spectrum of food-producing operations. An unparalleled outreach effort followed the proposal of these rules. My team and I traveled across the country and around the world to discuss these food-safety requirements with the people who would be most affected, including farms of varying types and sizes.

In our travels, we saw first-hand how everyone is committed to food safety.  We especially spent a lot of time talking to farmers, both those who are smaller and work the land their family has owned for generations, and those who oversee large, diverse operations. We have heard concerns that certain provisions, as proposed, would not fully achieve our goal of implementing the law in a way that improves public health protections while minimizing undue burden on farmers and other food producers.

And because of the input we received from farmers and the concerns they expressed about the impact of these rules on their lives and livelihood, we realized that significant changes must be made, while ensuring that the proposed rules remain consistent with our food safety goals.

For that reason, we are planning to revise language in the proposed rules affecting farmers and plan to publish it in the Federal Register for public comment by early summer. These include changes to sections covering water quality standards and testing, standards for using raw manure and compost, certain provisions affecting mixed-use facilities (such as a farm that has a food-processing operation), and procedures used to withdraw the qualified exemption to these requirements for certain farms. As we consider the comments we’ve received, we may decide to include other changes for public comment. We recognize that completing these rules is essential to protecting the public health and are committed to completing them as quickly as possible.

We always knew that the rules governing farmers would be complex, in part because of the incredible diversity in the size and nature of farming operations. The standards we set must accommodate that diversity and be feasible to implement.

In our efforts to get first-hand information about how these rules would work in the real world, we visited nearly 20 states, Europe and Mexico; toured small and large farms and met with farmers across the country; met with the Amish, organic producers and other groups deeply involved in farming; collaborated with officials from other federal and state public health agencies; and held many public meetings. We also met with coalitions of consumer groups and other stakeholders. Our outreach work has been focused on ensuring that we never took our eyes off the ultimate goal: Keeping the food that you and your family eat safe.

We believe that this decision to change  these proposed rules—in response to the careful consideration of many people involved in supplying our food—is critical to fulfilling our commitment to getting them right. I urge you to review these changes when they are ready and let us know what you think.

Michael R. Taylor is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine

In Vermont, Innovation Advances Local Food Systems

This is the seventh in a series of blogs by Deputy FDA Commissioner Michael Taylor on his multi-state tour to see agricultural practices first-hand and to discuss the produce-safety standards and preventive controls rule that FDA is proposing as we implement the Food Safety and Modernization Act of 2011 (FSMA). 

By: Michael R. Taylor

Innovation was the theme of our day in Vermont on Wednesday, Aug. 21. We visited food operations that have developed enterprising ways to make the most of local produce markets and to expand the options available to both growers and entrepreneurs.

Mad River Food Hub owner Robin Morris, right, gives a tour of the food distribution and processing facility.

Our first stop was at the Mad River Food Hub in Waitsfield. Food hubs are all about connecting small farms with markets. They distribute locally grown foods in a way that would otherwise be difficult for the owner of a small farm.

Owner Robin Morris has also provided space for the use of small food businesses. People who want to make and sell food but do not have their own facility rent space at Mad River, using the industrial kitchen, cutting room and other facilities there.

It’s an enterprising way to provide a critical service and is a central part of the economic model of a local food system. Small-scale entrepreneurs can get a start in a licensed facility, while keeping costs at a manageable level.

Robin is doing this as a business but also as way to give back to the local food system, whose broad, community-oriented values he strongly embraces. Robin and his team are very tuned in to food safety and part of the service they provide is to support the use of safe practices. Even though many of these small businesses are likely to be exempt from certain requirements under the proposed FSMA rules, they know they also have to meet their customers’ food-safety expectations, and Robin’s team helps them do that.

Later we stopped at Intervale Food Hub in Burlington for a great discussion with Travis Marcotte, Sona Desai and others who are playing leading roles in the food hub movement nationally. In addition to deepening our knowledge of the diverse food hub business models in New England and elsewhere, we had a great lunch in their big old red barn.

Mike Taylor in the hydroponic greenhouse with David Hartshorn, right, owner of Hartshorn Farm.

One of the most interesting stops on our trip was at the Hartshorn Farm in Waitsfield, where owner David Hartshorn has invested in a hydroponic facility in addition to his traditional organic farming operation. Hydroponics is a kind of agriculture that does not use soil – the plants are grown in nutrient-enriched water.

With one hydroponic greenhouse so far, David has a very high-tech system for growing lettuce with amazing efficiency. He estimates that he can grow as much lettuce in one-quarter of a hydroponic acre as he could on 10 acres of farmland. And crops could be grown all year round this way. Such diversification can help keep growers on the land, with real potential for growth. And you’ve got to love David’s entrepreneurial spirit!

Unlike the conversations in Maine and New Hampshire earlier this week, the conversations in Vermont were less about concerns that the federal government will roll over local growers with its proposed regulations, although the “don’t squash the little guy” message still came through.

This day was more about showing FDA how Vermont is using smart and creative tools to make local growers and food producers successful. What they are doing here is truly impressive and bodes well for the robust and highly diverse local food systems in New England.

Our last stop on Aug. 22 was in Massachusetts, where we received a warm reception from a key state partner—Greg Watson, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.

Commissioner Watson and his colleagues joined us at a listening session at the Plainville Farm in Hadley. More than 150 growers and other stakeholders attended this session and expressed many of the concerns we’ve heard in the other states about the potential impact of these proposed regulations on their operations and on their very livelihood.

Michael R. Taylor is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine

Basing Food Safety Standards on Science and Prevention

By: Margaret Hamburg, M.D.

Two of my highest priorities as FDA commissioner have been strengthening the scientific foundation of FDA’s regulatory decisions and ensuring the safety of an increasingly complex and global food supply.

Margaret Hamburg, M.D.That’s why I take such pride in FDA’s proposal of two rules that set science-based standards for the prevention of foodborne illnesses. One will govern facilities that produce food, and the other concerns the safety of produce.

The Preventive Controls for Human Food rule proposes that food companies—whether they manufacture, process, pack or store food— put in place controls to minimize and reduce the risk of contamination. The Produce Safety rule proposes that farms that grow, harvest, pack or hold fruits and vegetables follow standards aimed at preventing their contamination. 

These rules represent the very heart of the prevention-based reforms envisioned by the landmark FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and focus on preventing food safety problems before they happen.

These two rules are also part of a larger, ongoing reform effort, with other rules that set similarly high standards for imported and animal foods to be released in the near future.

In our interconnected world, FDA’s vigilance must extend globally. About 15 percent of our food is imported, and in some categories that percentage is much higher. For example, half of our fruits and a fifth of our vegetables come from abroad. We need a strategy that will address all of these complexities and challenges.

In drafting the proposed rules, FDA conducted extensive outreach and talked with key stakeholders, including farmers, consumer groups, state and local officials, and the research community. They build on existing voluntary industry guidelines and best practices for food safety, which many producers currently follow.

We want to continue to engage the public. So, I encourage Americans to review and comment on these rules, which are available for public comment for 120 days.

I believe this also showcases FDA’s adherence to solid science in its policy- and decision-making. The new draft rules recognize that the science of food safety is constantly evolving and that our oversight must take into account issues such as emerging disease-causing bacteria and new understandings of how hazards can be introduced into food processing.

FDA is committed to working with industry to provide the support they need, especially the smallest businesses. That’s why we are working with stakeholders through the Produce Safety Alliance, the Sprouts Safety Alliance, and the Preventive Controls Alliance to continue outreach efforts and to make educational and technical information readily available to industry.

Meeting the public health demands of a global marketplace. Bringing solid science to bear on our decision making. And safeguarding the well-being of American families with a prevention-focused food safety system. That’s FDA at work in the 21st century.

Margaret Hamburg, M.D., is Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration