Do you know what’s in your water? Proposed regs put responsibility on growers

Federal regulators have softened some proposed restrictions to farming practices in the name of food safety, but the Yakima Valley’s tree fruit industry officials say the proposal is still too much.

two fistin wilsonFruit trade officials plan to submit comments to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asking for additional allowances on proposed irrigation water quality standards called for by the Food Safety Modernization Act.

“It’s still complicated and still going to be costly for your grower,” said Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, a trade group that represents the fruit industry in federal affairs and international trade.

The Food Safety Modernization Act, or FSMA, is a 2011 federal law that mandated sweeping changes to the entire food production system to prevent the spread of food-borne illnesses, which kill 3,000 people a year nationwide and hospitalize 128,000, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It includes everything from hand washing to preventing acts of terrorism.

The FDA is charged with implementing the law and is taking public comments on its second attempt to impose the nuts and bolts of the regulation, spelled out in mind-numbing, scientific detail over several subsections that together would take up thousands upon thousands of pages.

“I don’t think any normal person can understand it,” Schlect said. “George Orwell would roll over in his grave.”

Growers objected most to a suggested stipulation that would prohibit any fruit from contact with water that does not meet the swimming quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency and would also require farmers to periodically test their water. If the test came back negative, the growers would have to shut off irrigation.

Most of the Yakima Valley farms rely on open canals and though many orchards use low sprinklers that water under the tree canopy, they also employ overhead sprinklers to cool fruit during the scorching peak of summer.

In the first round of public comments last year, Schlect and other grower groups argued the proposed rules would hold orchardists responsible for contamination upstream, and treat fruit that hangs on the trees the same as produce grown in the dirt.

While FDA officials didn’t soften the water quality standards in their revised proposal, they have suggested granting allowances for the time between the last round of irrigation and harvest. They also might allow growers to test water collectively, maybe at certain points in the canal.

Meanwhile, The Produce News reports that different standards for packinghouses under the Food Safety Modernization Act based on their location will cause confusion within the industry and are not science-based, produce industry groups told officials at the Food & Drug Administration during a Thursday public meeting on FSMA changes.

Under the FDA’s current interpretation of FSMA, on-farm packinghouses would need to meet produce safety standards, but off-farm operations, which must register with the FDA, would have to meet more extensive and costly preventive control requirements.

Registered facilities that only handle raw agriculture commodities and don’t conduct further processing should be covered under the produce safety rule, Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, argued during the meeting held in College Park, MD. Food safety and public heath benefits are likely to be best served by a single rule, he said.

My friend and collaborator, farmer Jeff Wilson addressed this issue over 10 years ago, long before youtube existed. We found the video.