With an estimated one out of every six people in the U.S. getting sick each year from foodborne illness, authorities have taken signicant steps to make the produce industry more accountable for the safety of its products.
Today, “for the first time” the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has established three new rules that establish enforceable safety standards for produce farms, while making importers accountable to ensure foreign imports meet domestic standards.
Specifically, the Produce Safety rule, the Foreign Supplier Verification Programs rule and the Accredited Third-Party Certification rule stem from the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) of 2011.
“The recent multistate outbreak of Salmonella in imported cucumbers that has killed four Americans, hospitalized 157 and sickened hundreds more, is exactly the kind of outbreak these rules can help prevent,” said Michael R. Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine.
“The FDA is working with partners across the government and industry to prevent foodborne outbreaks.
“The rules will help better protect consumers from foodborne illness and strengthen their confidence that modern preventive practices are in place, no matter where in the world the food is produced.”
The U.S. Apple Association described the rules as the “most significant changes to produce safety regulation in 70 years”, with the potential to significantly affect tree fruit practices.
“Our Technical Food Safety Task Force and Director of Regulatory Affairs will review the [Produce Safety] rule and determine how it specifically affects our growers and packers,” the association’s CEO Jim Bair said in a release.
“We are thankful that apples enjoy the reputation of being healthy and wholesome, and we are working hard to make sure they continue to deserve that reputation and remain a key contributor to nutritious diets.”
The group highlighted the Produce Safety rule will be published on Nov. 27 and become effective 60 days later, with compliance to be staggered over several years depending on the specific provision and size of operation.
The Produce Safety rule’s aims
The FDA says Produce Safety rule establishes science-based standards for growing, harvesting, packing, and holding produce that are designed to work effectively for food safety across the wide diversity of produce farms.
The standards in the final rule include requirements for water quality, employee health and hygiene, wild and domesticated animals, biological soil amendments of animal origin (such as compost and manure), and equipment, tools, and buildings.
When followed, the standards are designed to help minimize the risk of serious illness or death from consumption of contaminated produce.
Public comments and input received during hundreds of farm visits, meetings and listening sessions have shaped the rule into one that will reduce the risk of harmful contamination while also allowing appropriate flexibility for farmers and producers.
The FDA said the rule did not apply to agricultural commodities that were not raw or in their natural states, and identified the following products as rarely consumed as raw and therefore exempt; black beans, great Northern beans, kidney beans, lima beans, navy beans, and pinto beans; garden beets (roots and tops) and sugar beets; cashews; sour cherries; chickpeas; cocoa beans; coffee beans; collards; sweet corn; cranberries; dates; dill (seeds and weed); eggplants; figs; horseradish; hazelnuts; lentils; okra; peanuts; pecans; peppermint; potatoes; pumpkins; winter squash; sweet potatoes; and water chestnuts.
Raising import standards
The FDA says the Foreign Supplier Verification Programs rule means importers must verify foreign suppliers producing food in a way that meets U.S. safety standards.
“In 2013, USDA estimated that imported food accounted for about 19 percent of the U.S. food supply, including about 52 percent of the fresh fruits and 22 percent of the fresh vegetables consumed by Americans,” the FDA said.
“The final rule ensures that importers conduct verification activities (such as audits of a supplier’s facility, sampling and testing of food, or a review of the supplier’s relevant food safety records) based on risks linked to the imported food and the performance of the foreign supplier.”