In Forum and On Farms, FDA and Partners Work to Harvest Agreement on Water Issues

By: Samir Assar, Ph.D.

A two-day summit on the topic of agricultural water, followed by farm tours organized by FDA’s Produce Safety Network (PSN), illustrate FDA’s collaborative approach to implementing provisions of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

The Produce Safety Rule under FSMA includes standards for the microbial quality and testing of agricultural water that comes in direct contact with the harvestable portion of produce. In response to stakeholder concerns that these standards may be too complex to understand and implement, FDA is exploring ways to simplify them while still protecting public health.

That exploration recently took shape in two different ways. My team and I attended an agricultural water summit on February 27 and 28 with hundreds of participants in Covington, Kentucky, and 28 satellite locations across the country to discuss ways to simplify the agricultural water standards. And after the summit, a handful of FDA produce safety experts embarked on a different kind of fact-finding mission – an educational tour of two South Florida farms covered by new FDA regulations.

Both the summit and the farm tours included representatives from government agencies, academia, and the produce industry, along with farmers who must implement the produce rule provisions. Many of the participants know each other and have been working together to leverage strengths and trade knowledge as they cross territory that’s new for all of us.

There was a consensus at the summit that it’s time to agree on next steps. Some want the water standards to be redone; others want to stay with the standards as written but with a lot more interpretive guidance on how to meet them. There were frank discussions during breakout sessions about the challenges presented by the current requirements, specific on-farm hazards of concern and how they translate into food safety risks, and alternate water management strategies that could be used to control these hazards. Outcomes from these group discussions will help inform the decisions that FDA makes on these important issues.

I spoke at the summit about our need for more information about on-farm conditions and water systems. Ongoing dialogue with stakeholders will be crucial as we move forward.

We received feedback that additional clarity on how we arrived at the current agricultural water requirements in the final rule would be helpful, as would be increased communications on the research FDA is funding, particularly for projects involving cooperative monitoring programs. There was also a push for FDA to establish partnerships with other federal agencies that have water quality databases and tools that might be used to alleviate some compliance challenges. Throughout this process, we have been engaging with people who have technical expertise on a variety of relevant issues (for example, produce safety, water microbiology, and water systems). During the summit, we were able to establish connections with more technical experts, and we plan to continue engaging with all of these experts as we consider ways to simplify the standards.

Farm photo

Canals bring water from Lake Okeechobee to the Duda fields, where it reaches the crops through seep irrigation.

These conversations continued as my colleagues in FDA’s Division of Produce Safety joined their counterparts in the public and private sectors on the two Palm Beach County farms on March 1 and 2. In addition to the produce team and colleagues from the agency, those on the tours included representatives of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Science Extension, and state partners from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Florida Department of Health.

FDA has been putting these educational farm tours together for about a year, having done 117 in 2017 alone. Trevor Gilbert, the PSN representative whose region includes Florida, organized tours of the J&J Family of Farms and the Duda Farm Fresh Foods Facility, both of which began as family farms and grew to become national suppliers of produce. Both use a kind of irrigation unique to Florida’s high water table called the seepage method. The growing fields are intersected by canals that supply the water that is pulled up through a below-surface bed of sand to reach the crop roots. And both farms have staff specifically dedicated to food safety.

At J&J, the visitors were taken through fields of peppers and squash, the latter being cleaned and packed right in the field—in equipment invented on this farm—because of the crop’s sturdiness. The peppers are cleaned and packed in an off-farm facility. As the J&J food safety staff outlined the steps taken there to prevent the contamination of their crops, the main concern expressed about FSMA is a desire that the standards provide enough flexibility to allow room for innovative methods to ensure adequate supplies of water.

Farm photo

Perry Yance, Duda’s Farm Manager, talks to visitors from FDA about the farm’s use of water resources.

The next day, the team traveled to the Duda Farms, which started as a celery farm in 1926 and has staff members who have worked there for decades. Duda’s fields are fed by water that flows down from Lake Okeechobee, its fields laced with canals and pumps to control the water levels. The visitors were taken through fields of celery and radishes, marked by the occasional alligator sunning itself on the edge of a canal. As at J&J, some of the crops—celery in this case—are packed in the field using equipment invented by these farmers. The sentiment expressed here by the food safety team was one that I heard from others at the water summit: It’s time to reach agreement on the water standards and move forward.

Both farms follow food safety standards that preceded FSMA, ones shaped by audits required by retailers. The need to harmonize the requirements of such audits with FSMA is another challenge that has surfaced in discussions with the produce industry.

One of the calls for action that came out of the agricultural water summit was a need for more transparency and communications. That call will be answered in multiple ways, including building new connections through more of these educational farm tours. And the PSN’s team members are based all over the country to provide information and technical assistance.

FDA will continue working with dedicated teams of produce experts to find the right path forward, one that, where possible, makes the standards easier to understand and follow while still producing safe fruits and vegetables for consumers across America and throughout the world.

Samir Assar, Ph.D., is the Director of FDA’s Division of Produce Safety

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