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

Produce Safety Rule: The Partnership Continues

By: Michael R. Taylor

The comment period for the proposed produce safety rule closed on Friday, Nov. 22, but this is far from the end of FDA’s collaboration on produce safety with growers, the food industry, and consumers. FDA will continue to engage stakeholders, and we are committed to engagement through a final rule’s ultimate implementation.

Michael R. TaylorThe proposed produce safety rule is an important part of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), along with new measures to prevent problems in food processing facilities and strengthen our assurances that imported foods meet U.S. safety standards. When finalized, the produce rule will set science-based standards for the safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables, whether grown here or in another country. It’s crucial for all concerned that the final rule be both right for food safety and as practical and feasible as possible for the many produce operations involved in supplying fresh fruits and vegetables to America’s consumers.

To help get the rules right, my team and I have traveled our country to get input from the people who will be most affected and have the greatest expertise. Just in recent months, we have traveled to the Pacific Northwest, New England, Michigan, and California. We’ve toured all kinds of farms, from small ones that have been in the family for generations and grow many different crops, to huge farms that grow one crop. We’ve visited food hubs, roadside stores and irrigation districts. We’ve been joined by staffers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, extension agents, state agriculture commissioners and others. And there have been hundreds of listening sessions in which we’ve heard people speak frankly about their concerns about the proposed new requirements. What I want to say first to all the people we met and all those who have submitted comments is simply this:

Thank you.

The people I’ve met in all parts of the produce supply chain take great pride in the quality of their work and are committed to food safety. But they also feel that some parts of the produce rule as drafted won’t work, and they went to considerable effort – taking time out of their day, traveling to where we were, and waiting to speak to us – to help us understand their concerns. Particular concerns include the requirements that would affect irrigation water and the use of manure to fertilize crops. They also told us about parts of the rule with which they fully agree and want to be sure stay in place.

We now turn to the deliberations needed to craft a final rule, based on the thousands of written comments submitted to FDA and the input we received in our travels. While some concerns may be addressed through more precise language, others may need more changes, and a few may require substantial changes in what we’ve proposed. Rest assured that we will carefully consider these concerns and do whatever is possible to get these rules right. 

FDA will also engage stakeholders in the eventual implementation of the final rules. This includes continuing to work with the Produce Safety Alliance, state agriculture departments, and others in the produce community on education, training and technical assistance to support implementation by growers. They won’t be going it alone.

Keeping our food supply safe is FDA’s ultimate goal – and it’s a goal we know is shared widely by farmers, food distributors, and marketers throughout the food system. In field and factory, at the local food system level and over long supply chains, good people are working hard to keep your food safe. We look forward to an enduring partnership with this community as we work to finalize and implement the produce safety rule and the other important elements of the modern food safety system envisioned by FSMA.

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

Reaching Out to Europe on Food Safety

By: Michael R. Taylor

After trips to the Pacific Northwest and New England to connect with growers and state partners on produce safety, I traveled last week to Europe to talk with our regulatory counterparts and others about what the proposed rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) mean for countries that export food to the United States. In Europe, the focus was on all four of the rules we have proposed so far, including two rules proposed in July that implement the Congressional vision of achieving greater importer accountability for food safety.

The U.S. delegation meets with Dutch colleagues at the Port of Rotterdam, the largest seaport in Europe. Jack Vera (center), head of the Import Inspection Division, Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Authority, discusses with Mike Taylor and others procedures required by the European Union for conducting product checks and for sampling and testing product at the Border Inspection Post.

Food safety is a critical issue for all of us in today’s global food system. For consumers in the U.S., there’s a good chance that the food they are eating is imported. Fifteen percent of all the food we eat each year comes from other countries and the percentage is much higher for certain commodities, like fruits and vegetables, seafood and spices. American consumers want to know that imported food is as safe as food produced here.

U.S. food producers and processors also have a stake in the safety of food and ingredients from overseas and rightly want to know that there’s a level playing field – that imported food would have to meet the same safety standards as food produced in the U.S. under the new food safety rules. And it makes sense that European firms and governments are interested in the FSMA requirements we are developing because they want to maintain market access in the U.S.

Our first stop was in Grange, Ireland, just outside Dublin, where the European Union’s Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) is housed. FVO oversees the national food safety inspection programs conducted by the EU’s 28 member states. We had a full day of detailed discussion with FVO director Michael Scannell and his team about FSMA and the opportunity to collaborate on its implementation. The opportunities are great and are important for the U.S. and Europe if we’re to achieve both effectiveness and efficiency in food safety oversight.

There are some differences in how Europe approaches food safety oversight but what was striking to me was that many of the overarching principles that guide us are so similar. In the Netherlands, our second stop, a presentation by Dr. Ron Dwinger from that country’s Food and Consumer Product Authority emphasized basic principles that are very familiar to all of us – a focus on prevention, the importance of addressing food safety from farm to table, the need to base strategies on risk, and the importance of industry responsibility. It was obvious to me that all of us are talking the same language and that food safety reform is a global movement.

While in the Netherlands, my FDA colleagues and I visited the Port of Rotterdam, which is the largest seaport in Europe. The fact that it is a major gateway to the European market for food commodities from around the globe really showed the scale and complexity of today’s modern food system. We were briefed by Jack Vera, head of the Import Inspection Division, Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Authority, about their procedures and strong safety controls over what comes into the country, and we witnessed the sampling of frozen tuna from a large container that originated in Ecuador.

We moved on to Brussels for a critical meeting with our EU regulatory counterparts from DG Sanco, an arm of the European Commission that sets food safety policy and standards for the EU. FDA has had a very positive, ongoing relationship with Paola Testori, the head of DG Sanco. She is a strong leader for consumer protection and a staunch proponent of trans-Atlantic partnership on food safety, including FSMA implementation. Her direct and candid style will help ensure we fulfill our common vision.

We then held a public listening session in Brussels, where we found the same diversity of stakeholders and questions that we expect back home – from government, industry, and consumer groups. Those participating at the meeting represented both the EC and some of the EU member states.

Finally, after traveling to three countries in three days, we left Brussels for Geneva, where we visited our colleagues in the food safety program at the World Health Organization, who play a key role in assuring the scientific quality of international food safety standards, established by the Codex Alimentarius Commission of the United Nations, and in building the food safety capacity of developing countries.

The last stop of our trip was at the World Trade Organization (WTO) headquarters, which sits on the shore of the beautiful lake straddled by the “old” and “new” Geneva. We met there with Gretchen Stanton, who oversees implementation of WTO agreements related to trade in food, and her colleague Melvin Spreij. Trade is important to the economies of developed countries but also for less developed ones, many of which want to strengthen their food safety systems so they can export to markets in the U.S. and Europe. We discussed our international outreach efforts on FSMA and how to help developing countries build their food safety capacity.

With each visit, meeting and listening session we participate in, both in the U.S. or abroad, it becomes clearer and clearer how important partnerships will be to successful food safety reform and how many willing partners we have.

The aspiration for partnership is of course the easy part. Actually building meaningful operational partnerships is much more difficult and will require sustained investment of effort and significant resources. It will be worth it though if the end result is a modern food safety system suited for our global food economy and capable of maintaining the public confidence essential to trade in food, whether domestic or international.

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

States Have Important Role in Building Food-Safety Partnerships

This is the sixth 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 that FDA is proposing. 

By: Michael R. Taylor

 “Live Free or Die” has been New Hampshire’s state motto since 1945, and almost seven decades later it still represents the fiercely independent spirit of the people who live here.

At Dartmouth College, Mike Taylor talks at a listening session on FDA’s proposed food-safety rules.

Washington, D.C., is a company town in many ways and when you live and work there, it’s easy not to see how the federal government is perceived in communities where people are making their living from the land. There’s a wariness of what is seen as federal encroachment in matters that people believe should be handled at the local level.

We have known for some time how important the state role will be in implementing the provisions of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, and that was very apparent during our conversations in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Aug. 20. Everyone agrees that keeping the food supply safe is paramount, but accomplishing that — especially in the context of smaller scale, local food systems like we find in New England — will require teamwork that crosses federal and state boundaries.

We were fortunate to be joined in this visit to New Hampshire by Lorraine Merrill, commissioner of New Hampshire’s Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food, and Chuck Ross, secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Foods and Markets.

Lorraine and Chuck joined us in a listening session at Dartmouth College, where the concerns about federal involvement really jumped out. Locally oriented food communities are part of the social fabric and they want to stay that way. For the farmers and many consumers here, it’s all about looking a person in the eye and having confidence in the people you’re working with. Many participants in the listening session had studied the proposed rules carefully and asked important questions about how they would apply to highly-diversified local food systems. They challenged the rules’ practical and economic feasibility as proposed.

We also heard two compelling consumer voices about the importance of establishing modern standards to prevent foodborne illness: Lauren Bush, who suffered permanent damage to her health from spinach contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, and Gabrielle Meunier, whose son Christopher was hospitalized for seven days after eating Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter.

The challenge we must meet is to create food safety rules that reduce the risk of such terrible incidents, while being workable across the great diversity of American agriculture.

After the listening session, we visited the Co-Op Food Store in Lebanon. Founded in 1936 by Dartmouth College professors and their spouses, the Co-Op now boasts multiple stores and 30,000 members. There is a huge focus on local sources, with farmers’ photos on the walls. Many Co-Op employees have been trained in retail food safety, so the Co-Op clearly has a commitment to keeping their members safe. But it also identifies strongly with the farmers and wants to see them flourish. These go beyond business relationships; they are true partnerships.

At the Edgewater Farm in Plainfield, N.H., Mike Taylor, center, listens to Chuck Ross, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Foods and Markets. At right is farmer Pooh Sprague.

From there we went to the Edgewater Farm in Plainfield. Owners Pooh and Anne Sprague have the kind of diverse operation that you see a lot here. In addition to the family farm, there’s a very nice farm store in which the Spragues sell not only produce grown on their farm but flowers from their fabulous gardens. And while we were talking to Pooh, Anne was packing food for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), in which subscribers share in the harvest.

Farmers often have complex business models in which they are producing food, selling it directly to consumers, and sometimes selling foods from other farms in their stores. They are legitimately concerned about how the proposed food safety rules will affect the various facets of their operations.

However, there are a lot of misconceptions about these proposals. For example, some farmers feel that the proposed rule would require them to put up fences to keep wildlife out of their fields. Fencing an entire farm would be a big expense and we heard anxiety about that. But fencing is not a requirement under the proposed Produce Safety Rule. Rather, they would have to monitor their fields for animal intrusion and separate out produce that is reasonably likely to have been contaminated.

It’s clear we’ve got a huge job ahead in communicating the nuts and bolts of the proposed food safety regulations, as well as implementing the rules that finally emerge. And that’s where the states will be so important.

It’s about working with people you know. State agriculture departments have food safety responsibilities, but they are also there to support the agricultural system. State agriculture and health officials are on the front line; they have relationships with growers and food producers. Their role includes enforcement, but also education and assistance. The food safety law mandates a federal-state partnership, but even if it didn’t, this just makes sense.

Dealing with people they know at the state level may allay some of the fears that growers and local food retailers have about new federal standards. We will work with Lorraine Merrill, Chuck Ross and other partners to figure out how various institutions at the local, state and federal levels can best collaborate to help the produce community move forward in a way that is good for consumers and feasible for farmers.

Keep watching this space. I will be filing another FDA Voice blog this week to keep you up to date on what I learn in my travels to Vermont and Massachusetts. 

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

Hearing the Concerns of Maine Growers Striving for Agricultural Diversity

This is the fifth 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 that FDA is proposing.

By Michael R. Taylor

Mike Taylor Visits Bob Spear's Family-Owned Farm Stand

Mike Taylor and colleagues visit the farm stand owned by the Spear family. Bob Spear (center, in the red shirt) is a farmer and a former Maine commissioner of agriculture. He is flanked by Taylor and his wife, Janet Spear.

We arrived Sunday in Portland, Maine, the first stop in our visit to growers and other food producers in New England. The green of Maine in the summer could not be more different from our trip last week to the mountainous desert of the Pacific Northwest.

In Maine, the scale and kind of farming are also different, as are the concerns about FDA’s plans to create science-based, food safety standards. The local-food movement is an important part of the culture here, and a great source of pride.

Many growers are trying to be successful by diversifying or by using innovative business models. Bob Spear, a farmer in Waldoboro and a former Maine commissioner of agriculture, is a good example. He sells much of his crop through his own beautiful farm store, which he and his wife Janet designed, and through community farmers’ markets or directly to stores.

Recently, he has found an excellent new use for some of the winter squash he produces. In the past, he culled and discarded squash with surface blemishes that make then unsuitable for retail sale even though they are perfectly good. Now, rather than throw them out, Spear peels and cuts the squash and sells it to local schools for their lunch programs. It’s a good source of income for him and it’s a good source of fresh, local produce for the schools.

But the fact that he uses his packing house to prepare that produce would make him subject to FDA’s Preventive Controls for Human Foods rule for those activities, in addition to our Produce Safety Rule for other activities. Both rules were proposed in January 2013 as part of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. The proposed preventive controls rule would set safety requirements for facilities that manufacture, process, pack, or hold food for people.

Will that discourage innovative approaches like the one Bob Spear has taken? Processing raw commodities creates an opportunity for introducing contamination, but we have to be sure our rules are as practical as possible for each situation.

We heard many variations on this theme of innovation, both in our visits to farms and in a listening session Monday morning in Augusta. Some revolved around the law’s exemption from most of our proposed produce safety rules for farmers whose average food sales are less than $500,000 a year and who sell the majority of that direct to consumers or to retailers or restaurants in the same state, or not more than 275 miles away from them. This exemption, coupled with the fact that FDA has proposed not to cover farms with $25,000 or less in food sales, would mean that many of Maine’s small farmers would not be covered by the rule. In fact, nationwide, we estimate that of 190,000 potentially affected produce farms, 110,000 (almost 60 percent) would not be covered because of their size and manner of distribution.

But exemptions and limitations naturally raise additional questions about how they will be applied. For example, what about dairy farmers who want to try a small produce operation? Would doing so put them over the $500,000 mark when added to their dairy sales? The law says the exemption is based on “food” sales, not produce sales, and this is how FDA has proposed to apply it. Folks in Maine are concerned that this will discourage farmers from diversifying.

Others look at the $500,000 exemption ceiling as a disincentive to grow their produce business. Why should they try to become more successful when their reward will be additional regulatory requirements? In addition, one person I talked to asked what happens if an unexpected jump in sales puts them over the $500,000 sales level. Would they have to be in instant compliance with the produce safety rule? In finalizing the proposed rules, we will try to find practical answers to questions like that.

Just as we saw in the Pacific Northwest, some growers are worried that the cost of meeting food safety regulations will be excessive and could even put them out of business. Our pledge in working toward the final rules is to make them as practical as possible so that we achieve food safety in a way that is workable across the great diversity of American agriculture, from the Pacific Northwest to New England.

Walt Whitcomb, Marilyn Meyerhans and Mike Taylor at Lakeside Orchards

Maine Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Whitcomb, left, Marilyn Meyerhans, owner of Lakeside Orchards, and Mike Taylor.

As we move forward with these regulations, the Cooperative Extension System will be a valuable resource for growers. These federally funded, university-based offices are staffed by experts available to help agricultural producers and small business owners in communities across the country with practical, research-based information. I had a chance to talk with John Rebar, who leads extension in Maine and participated in our listening session. He is committed to food safety and the welfare of Maine’s farmers and will be a great partner in doing this right.

You know the reputation folks in New England have for rugged individualism. Some of the people we met here seemed a bit skeptical of our intentions at first, thinking that we might be big-government bureaucrats going through the motions. I hope we convinced them that our interest is genuine.

Even so, after our visit to the beautiful Lakeside Orchards in Manchester, Maine, I thought it was brave for the restaurant where we had lunch to display this sign: “Welcome FDA.” (And it was an excellent meal!)

Keep watching this space. I will be filing more FDA Voice blogs this week to keep you up to date on what I learn in my travels to New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts.

For more photos of my multi-region tour, visit Flickr.

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

On the Road with Mike Taylor, Day 4: Looking to the Future

This is the fourth 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 that FDA is proposing. 

By: Michael R. Taylor 

We did a lot of talking and listening on the fourth day – Wednesday, Aug. 14 – of our tour of the Pacific Northwest. It was an excellent day, as my colleagues and I spent most of it in a six-hour listening session in Yakima, Wash.

Karen Killinger, an associate professor at Washington State University and the University of Idaho, speaks to growers, representatives of the food industry and others at a listening session to discuss proposed produce safety regulations. Seated on the panel are from left: Mike Taylor, Samir Assar, Erick Snellman and Travis Minor of FDA.

There were roughly 175 people at the listening session, many of whom are professionally involved in managing food safety on behalf of the area’s growers. The questions and issues they raised were often technical and very specific to key points in the proposed produce-safety regulations. It was an invigorating discussion.

In the late afternoon we visited more farmland and packing operations, as we did on the fifth and final day – Thursday, Aug. 15. On both days, we saw a diverse array of crops that include apples, pears, onions, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, melons, peaches and nectarines. We learned more about different irrigation systems and approaches to using water for both frost protection and to prevent scalding from exposure to the sun.

What we’re learning about the diversity of practices will help us get our produce rules right when we finalize them down the road; it also reminds us of the importance of taking a collaborative approach to implementing the rules. The rules will provide a common food-safety accountability, but as we implement the rules, we’ll need to maintain the spirit of partnership embodied in our Northwest experience.

The Pacific Northwest tour included a visit to the packing house at Valley Fruit in Wapato, Wash.

What this entails is working with our state partners, extension services and the produce industry to provide education, training and technical assistance to help farmers comply with the rules and, most importantly, move toward the shared goal of food safety and consumer confidence in food safety. As we did with the development of the proposed rules, implementation must take into account the diversity among growers and commodities, and the importance of working with the produce community as a whole.

Together, we’ll get this right and continue toward the long-term goal of keeping our produce safe for consumers in this country and around the world.

Keep watching this space. I will be filing more FDA Voice blogs next week to keep you up to date on what I learn in my travels to New England. 

For more photos of my multi-region tour, visit Flickr.

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

On the Road with Mike Taylor, Day 3: Families and Partnerships

This is the third 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 that FDA is proposing.

By: Michael R. Taylor

As I visit farms in the Pacific Northwest this week, I have been truly moved by the passion that these farmers have for their work. This is not just a job to them – it’s their life. It’s their history, too, when the work is passed down from one generation to the next.

Kyle Mathison of Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee, WA, talks with Mike Taylor.

I am struck by the intensity of their desire to connect with me and with my FDA colleagues who have joined me in this tour of Idaho, Oregon and Washington to discuss provisions of the Produce Safety Rule that the agency proposed in January 2013. They want us to understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

The landscape here is amazing — mountainous desert transformed into patchworks of fertile fields by the use of extensive irrigation systems. These systems move water through canals and reservoirs from the snowpack of the Cascade Mountains and deliver it to thousands of high desert farms. Irrigation makes agriculture possible here, which is good for the farmers, but also for consumers since some of the crops grown here would be hard to produce elsewhere. They thrive in this climate.

Cherries are one of those crops and we spent much of Tuesday, Aug. 13, visiting the multi-faceted operations of Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee, Wash. The Mathison family has farmed this land for five generations, since Thomas Mathison – an immigrant from Scotland – homesteaded 160 acres on Stemilt Hill.

We saw how the varieties of cherries are harvested and then drenched in cold water to remove the field heat. We visited the composting facility that sits on 18 acres, and the Stemilt packing house. We discussed the critical role of properly made compost as a source of nourishment for organic production, both in the region and nationally, and the importance of ensuring that food safety and organic standards are compatible. The Mathisons are clearly proud of what they term their “world famous” fruit.

Andy Bary, a Washington State University research scientist, Mike Taylor, Nathaniel Lewis with the Food Safety-Organic Program at the Washington State Department of Agriculture, and Gwendolyn Wyard of the Organic Trade Association examine the compost at Stemilt Growers.

From there we went to a different packing facility, Double Diamond Fruit in Quincy, Wash., that illustrates another theme of this trip – the importance of public-private partnerships with academia, state agriculture agencies and industry to develop and implement best practices.

Karen Killinger, Ph.D., an associate professor at Washington State University and the University of Idaho, has researched ways to reduce the risk of bacterial contamination in the produce packing process. She and her colleagues have worked with Double Diamond Fruit to implement a change in the packing line for apples that was shown to be more effective in killing bacteria.

As I travel this week, I am accompanied by some of the state leaders who will be full partners with FDA in implementing the produce rule and other safety regulations.

The presence of the three directors of the state agriculture departments – Donald “Bud” Hover (Washington), Katy Coba (Oregon) and Celia Gould (Idaho) – reminds me how much we value our state partners. They have a critical role in helping ensure that safety regulations crafted in Washington, D.C., are realistic as written and become a reality in the day-to-day operations of our food producers.

We have also been joined in our bus or in our cars – depending on which vehicles are working on any given day – by industry representatives who are providing input and perspective that will help us craft a final Produce Safety Rule that will be effective for food safety and practical for farmers.

FDA can’t do this alone. I don’t think that’s ever been clearer to me than it has been this week.

Keep watching this space. I will be filing more FDA Voice blogs to keep you up to date on what I’m learning here and in my travels to New England next week.

For more photos of my multi-region tour, visit Flickr.

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

On the Road with Mike Taylor, Day 2: Frank Talk in Farm Country

By: Michael R. Taylor

We spent a second day in onion country on Monday, Aug. 12, visiting farms, food processing and packing companies, and an irrigation system. Idaho, Oregon and Washington are the top onion-producing states and we learned a lot about how onions are grown, harvested, packed and processed and how irrigation water is delivered to these high desert landscapes.

Paul Skeen, farmer and president of the Malheur County Onion Growers in Oregon, shows Mike Taylor how water is siphoned from the canal for furrow irrigation of bulb onions.

And then we listened to the concerns of farmers and others involved in the production of our foods who question whether certain standards in the Produce Safety Rule that FDA proposed in January 2013 will work in their production settings.

In this region, growers and other stakeholders in the produce industry are focused in particular on proposed regulations related to the quality of irrigation water. FDA is proposing numerical criteria for the level of E.coli in irrigation water, which has been shown to be a pathway for disease-causing bacteria.

Their reservations were plain to see when more than 150 of them came out to the Four Rivers Cultural Center in Ontario, Ore., on Monday for a listening session. In addition to my team at FDA, I was joined by Katy Coba and Celia Gould, directors respectively of the Department of Agriculture in Oregon and Idaho, and other state officials from all three states. There were also representatives from academia and the produce industry.

The room was so full that people were standing in the back; many of them had taken a break from their farming duties to attend. Person after person stepped up to speak at the open mike. These growers believe their crops are safe and are concerned about the impact the regulations would have on their businesses. Representatives of industry made the point that more data is needed before some of these regulations are put into effect.

And I was there to tell them all that they have FDA’s attention. Yes, their crops may have a low overall risk of contamination, and we are committed to issuing only those standards that are necessary for public health protection. But at the same time, we need to prevent illnesses from happening—that’s what the proposed Produce Safety Rule, mandated by the 2011 FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), is all about.

Katy Coba (in red shirt), director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture talks to Mike Taylor and others visiting the Warm Springs Irrigation System and Owyhee Pipeline in southeastern Oregon.

We gave assurances that the proposed rule provides the opportunity for alternative ways to meet certain safety standards if those ways are scientifically proven to be effective. I hope we convinced them that we want to figure this out in a practical way—together. This trip is not just an exercise for us – we really want to learn what works on the ground-level. What we take away from this trip will have a big impact on the shape the regulations take.
FSMA is about food safety but it’s also about making sure consumers have access to a plentiful supply of fruits and vegetables, which are important for a healthy diet.  It’s about giving the public confidence in the safety of the food supply and having a stable, safe marketplace.

It was an emotional meeting and one filled with raw, honest discussions. There will be more sessions like this as we involve other stakeholders in the process of building practical, effective food-safety regulations.

As an aside, this trip has not been without a few small bumps. Our bus broke down Monday night—fortunately in a service station that had snacks—and now we’re caravanning by car. And when I’ve tried my hand at some farming tools, I’ve gotten mixed reviews. One farmer watching me try to install an irrigation siphon hose offered this sage advice: “Don’t quit your day job.”

Keep watching this space. I will be filing more FDA Voice blogs to keep you up to date on what I’m learning here and in my travels to New England next week.

For more photos of my multi-region tour, visit Flickr.

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