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.
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