On January 4, 2011, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the most significant changes in the FDA’s approach to food safety in 70 years. On January 4, 2013, exactly two years later, the FDA issued two of five anticipated regulations that will help prevent foodborne illness.
But wait, one of the regulations—the proposed Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption or The Produce Safety Rule has a long way to go before it goes into effect.
How long? If the final version of the regulation was announced tomorrow, the shortest period before any of the larger covered farms that grow, harvest, pack or hold most fruits and vegetables in their raw or unprocessed state is two years. Smaller facilities covered by the law may have up to six years, and even the larger farms that fall in the two-year time frame may have up to four years to compile with certain parts of the regulation.
Unfortunately, there’s a dire need for the regulations, as the FDA freely admits. “Foodborne illness outbreaks associated with contaminated produce over the last decade have caused a widespread recognition that we need a new, modern food safety system that prevents food safety problems in the first place—not a system that just reacts once they happen.” Between 1996 and 2010 there have been 131 documented foodborne illness outbreaks involving contaminated produce. Biological hazards such as Salmonella, E. Coli O157H7, Shigella, Hepatitis A and Cyclospora have caused more than 14,000 illnesses and 34 deaths.
What does this new law and delayed enactment mean to you? It means regardless of what rules have been announced you should take nothing for granted! You must manage your food safety program as if your business, livelihood and the health of your customers depend on it—because it does. You can’t assume without great risks that the links in the supply chain leading to your operation are clean and secure.
The regulations needed to implement and enforce the FSMA are, in fact, significant advances and improvements in the FDA’s approach to food safety. But for now you must be prepared to manage your own program in a way that will allow you to determine if the fruits and vegetables coming in your backdoor are safe. The plan or system you have in place for produce must be specific to whether an item is to be cooked or treated as a ready-to-eat (RTE) item.
The bullet points that follow are directed at the facilities that grow, harvest, pack and hold produce. Because, in most cases, you will not be in a position to monitor these activities yourself, you must rely on your supply chain. That does not mean that you should cross your fingers and accept a delivery. Instead, engage your supplier in discussion about what they know about the grower. If you’re getting your produce from a distributor, then you need to know what the distributor has done to verify how the produce is being grown, processed, held and shipped. If you don’t get specific answers to specific questions, you may need to find a new supplier.
A significant percentage of produce must be considered RTE food. This places even greater importance on verifying that the produce supplier and grower have an appropriate food safety system is in place. If you’re buying locally you may have the opportunity to verify this yourself. If you’re buying through a wholesaler or distributor you still need to verify, but it may be in the form of a review of documentation.
Regulations aim to improve food safety
Once they are finally approved, the Produce Safety Rules will establish science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing and holding of produce on farms. The regulations focus on identified routes of microbial contamination of produce, including:
• Agricultural Water—all agricultural water must be safe and of adequate sanitary quality
• Biological Soil Amendments of Animal Origin—what a fancy way to describe manure and what you are supposed to do with it to keep it “safe”.
• Health and Hygiene—that’s right everyone, including workers down on the farm need to properly wash their hands, use the porta potty, wash their hands and practice adequate personal cleanliness.
• Domesticated and Wild Animals—When animals, domesticated or wild, poop in the field it contaminates the crops. There must be a system in place to monitor such activity and manage it.
• Equipment, tools and buildings—set standards for certain equipment and tools, buildings and sanitation practices used for produce operations on farms.
• Training—required training for farm personnel who handle the produce or food-contact surfaces and for supervisors.
• Recordkeeping—certain records must be maintained that document certain standards are being met. “If it wasn’t documented it didn’t happen” is just as important on the farm as it is in the foodservice kitchen.
• Risk Assessment—the FDA will issue a separate document providing a qualitative assessment of risk that provides a scientific evaluation of the potential adverse health effects resulting from human exposure to hazards in produce.
Will the FSMA improve produce food safety? Yes, eventually. The FDA estimates this proposed rule will prevent 1.75 million foodborne illnesses with an associated benefit of $1.04 billion annually. However, for now and forever if you are in the foodservice business you must remain vigilant as your customers’ greatest advocate.
Find an excellent description of the FSMA rules online.
Steven Sklare, REHS, CP-FS, LEHP, is a sales executive for food safety services at SGS Consumer Testing Services. He’s been working in the food industry for over 20 years performing supply chain risk management, food safety audits and training, food safety management plan design and pest control services. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at LinkedIn.