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

A Milestone in our Partnership with Mexico on Food Safety

En Español

By: Michael R. Taylor

We know that food safety is more a journey than a destination, but there are times when we can point to a major milestone along the road. Today, we reached such a milestone in our long-standing relationship with Mexico by signing a statement of intent to establish a new produce safety partnership.

signing ceremony in Mexico

Left to right: Michael R. Taylor, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine; Enrique Sánchez Cruz, Executive Director, SENASICA, Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and Mikel Arriola Peñalosa, Commissioner, COFEPRIS – at today’s signing ceremony.

Working with Mexico on food safety is a top priority. Mexico is one of the United States’ top trading partners, and much of the produce we eat is grown there, including produce that otherwise would be hard to find during the winter. And food safety modernization efforts are underway in both countries, providing an excellent opportunity for progress. In the U.S., we are implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act, and produce safety is a big part of that effort, while Mexico is implementing an amendment to its food safety laws that mandates standards for fresh produce, inspections, and surveillance and verification programs.

We have been working with the two food safety agencies in Mexico—SENASICA, the National Service for Agro-Alimentary Public Health, Safety and Quality, and COFEPRIS, the Federal Commission for the Protection from Sanitary Risks—for some time, and it has been a very rewarding relationship. Last fall, I had the pleasure of traveling to Mexico City to meet with Dr. Enrique Sanchez Cruz, director general of SENASICA, and Mikel Arriola, federal commissioner of COFEPRIS, who were both present for today’s signing ceremony. And in March of this year, I traveled to Tubac, Arizona, to meet with Mexican government officials and producers of fresh fruits and vegetables from both sides of the border to discuss how all of us—in both the public and private sectors—can do our part to meet high consumer expectations for food safety.

The statement of intent is just a two-page document, but it represents a strategy that is far-reaching and designed to achieve high rates of compliance with produce standards in each country. In the months and years to come, we will be working with Mexico to identify practices to prevent contamination during the growing, harvesting, packing, holding and transportation of fresh fruits and vegetables and verification measures to ensure these preventive practices are working. We will exchange information to better understand each other’s produce safety systems—and in fact, this sharing is already underway. We intend to develop culturally appropriate education and outreach materials to support industry compliance with produce safety standards, and we will work on enhancing our collaboration on laboratory activities and on outbreak response and traceback activities.  It’s an ambitious agenda, and that is the value of an inclusive partnership. We are engaging industry, commerce, agriculture, academia and consumers because everyone has a role in ensuring the safety of the food supply.

It is gratifying to see the progress we have made along the way—and even more gratifying to know that with the new produce safety partnership in place, fruits and vegetables will be safer for consumers on both sides of the border.

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

Succeeding on Produce Safety

By: Michael R. Taylor, J.D.

We get our fresh produce from all over the place – from the broad lettuce fields of Salinas, the smaller truck farms of North Carolina and Delaware, and the road side produce operations that dot Long Island. And just about everywhere in between.

But, as much as we all enjoy locally-grown produce bought at a nearby farmer’s market, our quest for abundant supplies of fresh fruits and vegetables year round has turned our eyes and our markets outward. We now import 50% of our fresh fruit and 20% of our fresh vegetables, with Mexico being our largest source of both. In fact, two-thirds of imported fresh vegetables and almost 30% of imported fresh fruit comes from Mexico.

Michael R. Taylor, J.D.I recently spent a day in Tubac, Arizona, participating in the America Trades Produce conference. Tubac is near Nogales, which is the site of the highest volume port of entry for produce coming into the United States from Mexico – sometimes over 1,000 truckloads per day.

The conference brought together people on both sides of the border with a stake in this trade – growers and shippers of produce, importers, federal and state officials from the United States, and our regulatory counterparts from Mexico. I went to the meeting to talk about FDA’s progress in implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which will transform how we oversee the safety of fresh produce, whether grown in Mexico or the United States.

I came away with some strong impressions. First, food safety is a front-of-mind topic for the produce industry. Those trading across the border of course have trade concerns, such as avoiding logistical delays in entering goods at the port of entry. But the people I spoke with consider food safety central to their business. That’s why they wanted to hear from me about FSMA implementation and why the conference program included exercises using realistic scenarios to share knowledge about how to manage recalls and other food safety incidents.

Second, they know that managing problems after they occur is not nearly enough.  Significant outbreaks of illness affecting major produce commodities have harmed consumers and consumer confidence and cost millions in lost sales. That’s why many in the industry have invested in growing and handling practices they know can prevent contamination and illness. And it’s why they voice strong support for implementing FSMA, which will create a level playing field of modern, prevention-oriented standards to ensure wider adoption of sound food safety practices.

Finally, they want to get on with building the new import safety system mandated by FSMA. In addition to new produce safety standards, FSMA requires importers to have a verification program that provides assurances that the food they import is as safe as domestic produce, strengthens the private audit system, mandates more foreign inspection by FDA, and directs FDA to partner more closely with foreign governments to ensure food safety. These reforms respond directly to concerns reflected in a 2011 food-industry sponsored survey showing that only 50% of Americans have confidence in the safety of the food supply and 61% consider imported food less safe due to the lack of adequate government oversight.

Building the new import system can be a win-win for consumers and industry. By building in prevention and verification from the point of production, the system can make produce safer, bolster public confidence, and streamline the border entry process, which is crucial for the shelf life and quality of perishable fruits and vegetables.

People often say to me “You folks at FDA must really have your hands full implementing FSMA.”  That’s true, and even an understatement. The day in Tubac reminded me, however, why we’ll succeed. Modernizing the food safety system is a community effort.  We have broad common interests that motivate our individual and collaborative efforts.  By working together, we make success the only possible outcome.

Michael Taylor is Deputy Commissioner for Foods at FDA