Fruit, vegetable growers learn new FDA food safety rules

Schultz Bruce, Graham, Charles J.

News Release Distributed 10/21/13

WINNSBORO, La. – A complex set of federal food safety regulations will affect many producers of agricultural products and require more record keeping, an LSU AgCenter specialist told fruit and vegetable growers at the Northeast Louisiana Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference here on Oct. 17.

“This is the law that will reshape agriculture as we know it,” said Charlie Graham, LSU AgCenter pecan specialist.

Graham said the cornerstone of the Food Safety Modernization Act is prevention, and it will result in tighter rules for growers. He said many companies have not been routinely inspected by the Food and Drug Administration in the past, but the new act will require inspections for all high-risk domestic facilities within five years of enactment and at least every three years thereafter.

Possible microbial contamination sources – water, farm worker hygiene, soil amendments, animals in growing areas, equipment, tools and buildings – are being targeted.

Farms or processors that grow, harvest, package or hold produce in a raw or natural state are covered by FSMA, he said. The food includes vegetables, fruit, nuts, mushrooms and sprouts.

Grain or cereal crops intended for human consumption have been excluded from the rules because exemptions are made for foods, such as sweet potatoes, that are seldom consumed raw.

Imported food will also be required to be grown and processed under the same standards, he said, and companies bringing food into the United States will have to be certified under a third party certification.

He said more extensive record keeping will be required, and records must be available within 48 hours.

Until now, food recalls have been voluntary, Graham said, but the law will allow the FDA to impose mandatory recalls when public safety is at risk.

He said the first two of five proposed rules under FSMA were released in January. The FDA is still in the rule-making stage, with the public comment period open until Nov. 15, although the deadline has been extended twice already.

Rules for animal feed are still being developed but should be released soon.

Growers will be required to store farm equipment in enclosed buildings. Testing will be required for water used for irrigation unless it is from a treated source.

Biological soil amendments, including manure, must be applied no later than nine months before harvest. “I know that will have an effect on a lot of pecan growers,” said Graham, who explained that cattle are often grazed in orchards.

He said the only food safety issue involving pecans was a salmonella infection traced to a processing plant in Texas and not an orchard.

Graham said the Food Safety Preventive Controls Alliance will help educate and train growers. He said the LSU AgCenter is in the process of hiring a specialist to advise growers and processors on FSMA rules.

There are exemptions under FSMA, Graham said. For instance, a farm with less than $25,000 in annual sales averaged over the past three years would be exempt. An exemption from the rules is granted to a farm with more than $500,000 in sales that sells most of its food directly to the public or a qualified end-user, such as a restaurant within the same state where the food is produced or no more than 275 miles from the farm.

Implementation of the rules would be staggered based on farm size. Producers that sold no more than $250,000 of food annually in the past three years would have four years to comply after a date has been set. The $500,000 threshold would require compliance within three years, and water standards would have to be met in five years.

All other businesses would have two years, with four years to meet water quality requirements.

Also at the conference, Beatrix Haggard, LSU AgCenter soils specialist, talked about the importance of soil testing. She said a pH between 5.8 and 6.8 is good for most plants, although some plants such as blueberries require more acidic soil.

She advised growers to check fertilizer labels to make sure the solubility is more than 50 percent. “Be aware that not all fertilizers are equal.”

Harry Schexnayder, of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, said LDAF no longer certifies organic growers, and certification now must be done by private companies.

He said growers with less than $5,000 in annual sales can promote their products as organic without certification. Others can still run an organic operation without certification but cannot use the organic distinction on their promotion efforts without certification, he said.

Sweet potato grower Eva Dawson, of Delhi, talked about her sales to national chains, including Walmart.

She said selling to national chains requires a large amount of documentation and record keeping. “You need to back up everything you say.”

She said selling produce has become more sophisticated and complex. “The days of selling out of a pickup are all but over.”

Katherine Fontenot, LSU AgCenter horticulturist, said the state has 376 fruit and vegetable operations.

She said part of her work involves testing plant varieties. One of her tests this year was on tomatoes, and she found the best-producing variety was Tribute No. 1, and the Tribeca variety had the best taste.

Todd Cooper, LSU AgCenter extension associate, said growers should consider registering their commercial operations with the free online MarketMaker program. Cooper said 460 Louisiana producers are registered now.

“We average 100,000 to 110,000 visits to our website per month,” Cooper said.

Steve Hotard, LSU AgCenter area horticulture agent in Ouachita Parish, said the state had 2,022 Master Gardeners in 2012, and they provided more than 70,000 hours in volunteer work on horticulture projects.

Mavis Finger, LSU AgCenter sweet potato specialist, said this year’s sweet potato crop at 7,500 acres was a decrease of 25 percent from last year.

She said the crop was delayed by a cool, wet spring followed by a dry spell late in the season. “Producers with irrigation were able to keep their crop on schedule.”

She said harvest is roughly 60 percent complete, and it should be finished by early November.

Finger said the new variety, LA 07-146, is out-yielding the Beauregard variety by 15 to 20 percent. The new variety Orleans also is performing well, she said.

The conference attendees were given a tour of the nearby LSU AgCenter Sweet Potato Research Station to see sweet potatoes being harvested and planted.

Arthur Villordon, LSU AgCenter sweet potato researcher, showed an ongoing project to test different methods of applying fertilizer. He said the method of broadcasting the fertilizer instead of injecting it into the soil appears to have more effectiveness and is resulting in higher yields and improved quality.

“We’re finding out if the plants don’t sense it, they will not send out their roots,” Villordon said.

Bruce Schultz

10/22/2013 2:10:24 AM
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