Federal food safety law poses problems for agricultural producers

Richard Bogren, Graham, Charles J.

News Release Distributed 01/27/14

BATON ROUGE, La. – The U.S. Food Safety Modernization Act is the first major overhaul of American food safety laws in decades. It strives to make the food supply safer, but growers and manufacturers could face a number of challenges.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 48 million, or one in six, Americans get sick from foodborne diseases each year. Because this is a significant public health burden, FSMA seeks to prevent food safety problems instead of reacting to them.

It is a wide-reaching law that affects foreign and domestic entities alike, according to LSU AgCenter pecan specialist Charlie Graham.

FSMA marks the first reform of food safety regulations since 1938, when the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act was passed. That law has been amended several times. But after several recent outbreaks and recalls, people realized the government regulations had no "teeth," Graham said. FSMA empowers the Food and Drug Administration to demand recalls, for example, instead of asking producers to do so.

When Congress passed FSMA in 2010, the FDA was tasked with developing rules to enforce the new law. Graham said after the FDA proposes a rule, it opens a comment period. Based on feedback from the public, the rule is revised before being published and made law.

FDA has released six rules so far, comment periods currently are open for five. They deal with the manufacturing and production of human and animal food, set new standards for foreign-produced food and provide mitigation strategies for manufacturers in the event of terrorism.

These are "ground-shaking changes" Graham said will cause Louisiana farmers to make several adjustments or, in some cases, shut down.

FSMA imposes requirements such as regular water analysis for pathogens, which Graham pointed out will take a large bite out of small farms' budgets. FSMA requires equipment to be stored inside a structure. Graham said many growers in Louisiana keep their equipment outside and will therefore have to pay to build storage sheds.

FSMA also states that producers cannot harvest food crops that have come in contact with wild animals.

If "I have a crop that I have a lot of money invested in, then wild animals come into the orchard or into the field and I lose my crop due to that, I lose all the money I have invested in that crop," Graham said. "I can't harvest it by law."

That rule also means producers of crops such as pecans can no longer allow cattle to continuously graze in orchards. Those people will have to decide which crop they want to continue to produce, Graham said.

Rogers Leonard, LSU AgCenter associate vice chancellor and program leader for plant and soil programs, said another key part of FSMA is expanded requirements for documentation of growing and manufacturing practices.

Leonard said the number of changes resulting from FSMA make it crucial for producers to participate in the comment periods and get educated about new rules.

"I'm gravely concerned we could put a lot of our small producers out of business," Leonard said. "Then the other part is, look at farmers markets, which are gaining steam left and right. Many of those are small producers who sell fresh produce. They would have to adhere to these guidelines."

FSMA takes positive steps toward a safer food supply, and most farmers in Louisiana want to do things right, Leonard said. That may be challenging, however, because FSMA is a broad national law not tailored to individual states’ crops or environmental conditions. Leonard said people need to offer feedback so regulations can be fine-tuned.

Fruits such as blueberries, for example, are grown from southern Louisiana to Minnesota, but each state has special characteristics that affect the implementation of these rules and effects on growers.

"They could have taken guidelines that fit one state and said OK, that's where the largest blueberry production area is; we're going to make those fit all across the country because those berries have no issues with food safety," he said. "Well, those guidelines probably would not fit in Louisiana due to its different climate and production systems."

Leonard said because it is vitally important to help the food and agriculture industries comply with FSMA, the AgCenter has hired a produce food safety specialist who will provide food safety training specific to the needs of Louisiana.

Olivia McClure

1/28/2014 2:27:11 AM
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