When the Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law in 2011, much of the focus was on the tougher standards that manufacturing and processing facilities would have to put in place to help prevent outbreaks that sicken an estimated 48 million people annually.
But it also brought mandated food safety practices somewhere relatively new: America’s 2.1 million farms. FSMA’s produce safety rule sets standards for production, harvest and handling of fruits and vegetables in order to decrease the risk of contamination. The requirements for biological soil additions, access to fields by animals and worker health and hygiene training and access rules will be enforced for most produce farms starting in January 2018. The water-related compliance dates are likely to be commence four years later.
“It's clear that in some aspects, good agricultural practices don't quite meet enough of a control standard,” Will Daniels, principal at the Fresh Integrity Group, told Food Dive at a conference earlier this year. “… [There are a] whole bunch of other folks who don't necessarily have [or] haven't met on-farm inspections, haven't met a new standard that they might disagree with because they've been doing [it] for hundreds of years. Maybe [it’s a] fourth-generation farmer kind of a thing, and, ‘We've always done it this way and never had a problem. Why do we have to worry about that?’ “
There are many reasons for farmers to be concerned with produce safety. According to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 1998 and 2008, produce accounted for 46% of foodborne illnesses — with 22% coming from leafy vegetables. Bacteria can lurk on the surface of fruits and vegetables, as well as inside of fruits and leaves, being rather difficult to wash off. And because much fresh produce is eaten raw, consumers can be at increased risk.
While growers are likely aware of the risks, many farmers across the country haven’t put standards in place to control safety of their crops. And with FSMA’s produce safety rule now being finalized — and taking effect in a few months — it’s time for everyone to make changes in their practices. Daniels, who has a long career in working with produce growers and currently is a consultant to help them come into compliance in terms of food safety, said different industry players are approaching — and working to comply with — the regulations in their own ways.
“It's a mixed bag of emotion and response and concern, or welcoming the regulation as creating kind of an even playing field for everybody,” Daniels said.
How spinach led to industry change
In 2006, a wide-ranging E. coli outbreak was traced to bagged fresh spinach sold by Dole. The outbreak led to 205 illnesses in 26 states — which included 104 hospitalizations, 31 cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome, and four deaths. After the contamination was traced to four spinach fields in California, state and federal officials started to look into why the outbreak occurred.
California greens growers took matters into their own hands, starting the California Leafy Greens Products Handler Marketing Agreement, often abbreviated LGMA, in 2007. The agreement operates with oversight from the California Department of Food and Agriculture and verifies that farmers follow safety practices for leafy greens. According to the LGMA website, member companies represent about 99% of leafy greens that reach consumers, and undergo government audits to ensure safety. LGMA’s safety metrics align with FSMA’s produce safety rule, meaning most of these products will comply with the law.
California isn’t the only state with a leafy greens program, with Arizona implementing a similar LGMA. Leafy greens aren’t the only Western U.S. crop with their own set of regulations. California Cantaloupe Advisory Board has established its own set of safety guidelines.
Daniels said the spinach outbreak was transformative. Before 2006, most farms didn’t have dedicated food safety personnel. While good agricultural practices were important, there were no systematic ways to minimize and control potential food safety hazards through handling or contamination.
In the first days of California’s LGMA, Daniels said there was a lot for everyone to learn. Water quality on the farm had never been systematically tested before, and he said that was one of the biggest challenges to adoption. Other guidelines that mainly deal with risk management — like sanitationrequirements for workers — may be sensible, but hadn’t been required before.
“Fortunately, there are programs out there that are encouraging those small growers to really understand what the risks are on their farm and address those risks.”
Principal, Fresh Integrity Group
“Fortunately, there are programs out there that are encouraging those small growers to really understand what the risks are on their farm and address those risks,” Daniels said. “Whether it's a mixed farm operation [or] a CSA type of an operation where they might have livestock and produce in the same farm. How do you manage that appropriately? And it's not to say that you should never do that, it's just to say, ‘Hey you've got risks,’ identify those risks, and [how to] control them.”
Greg Komar of Mann Packaging Company, which processes and ships leafy greens, said at a forum this spring that the California LGMA has put many farmers on the West Coast on the right track to more easily comply with FSMA.
“LGMA is a government program, but the standards are industry created,” he said. “It’s been a major feat, but I feel they are meeting or surpassing the produce safety rule.”
Daniels said the LGMA guidelines caused quite a bit of anxiety when they first came out.
“Over time, I think a lot of those concerns have been eased because companies that got into Leafy Greens were being certified and passing audits, and seeing the system work really created a calm in the community,” he said.
Getting used to regulations
While some West Coast growers may find regulations to be old hat, it’s something new for thousands of other operations throughout the country. Daniel said the new rules — spotlighting exactly how farming is to be run — are putting pressure on the industry. However, they will help ensure that produce is as safe as it can be.
“Early on, as the concept was coming out, I think that there was certainly a lot of feelings like they were getting blamed for everything," he said. "They already have a very tight margin, and to add to things was just going to be a deal breaker for them. That a lot of them aren't real excited about regulation in the first place. So that whole just general feeling about Big Brother coming onto the farm and checking things out is another aspect that really is not very interesting to farmers.”
Daniels said it appears the FDA was sensible in making its rules. The agency listened to farmers’ concerns across the country and took them into account. He said that educating everyone on the risks that are involved with aspects of farming — from water contamination to training for those who work in the fields — makes the rules seem more common sense.
"A lot of them aren't real excited about regulation in the first place. So that whole just general feeling about Big Brother coming onto the farm and checking things out is another aspect that really is not very interesting to farmers.”
Principal, Fresh Integrity Group
Vicki Scott, a leafy greens and melon grower in Yuma, Arizona, said one of the biggest changes she has seen in working to implement the produce safety rule has been in the meticulous recordkeeping. Manufacturers throughout the industry have said the same about many of the regulations FSMA put in place.
“From the grower’s standpoint, we are responsible for taking all measures reasonable and necessary to identify and not harvest produce that is likely to be contaminated,” Scott told a conference session in May. This includes looking for animal feces nearby, testing soil composition for any potential contaminants, and training employees on things such as washing and sanitizing tools. Documentation for all of these needs to be kept and submitted as part of the law.
While nobody likes new regulations, FSMA adds new rules where none had previously been in place. Daniels said he thinks the key to getting prepared for the produce safety rule is the training. While many farming operations aren’t sophisticated corporations and have owners who are also involved with planting and harvesting, there isn’t much time to take breaks and undergo intensive training.
Daniels said the larger forces at play — recent history of produce outbreaks, branding and DNA testing that make outbreaks highly traceable, and farmers' place in the “farm to fork continuum” of today’s food economy — make them more likely to want to comply.
“It's not growing in a enclosed warehouse manufacturing process that can really maintain control of its environment. It's open and outdoors, and often, many of the practices that were used for sustainability, whether it be soil amendments, utilizing manure for soil amendments, create additional risks,” he said. “And while they have always been done that way, that connection [between process and risk] hasn't always been there because the epidemiology didn't show that the head of lettuce made you sick, because you had no way of telling where it came from.”
Daniels added that state cooperation also is key to preparing for the law to take effect. Some state departments of agriculture are more proactive and enthusiastic in reaching out and educating those who work with fresh produce. Much of FSMA, after all, depends on a strong partnership between state and federal authorities.
But, he said, the new guidelines will eventually catch on and not be seen as burdensome. Daniels spoke with food industry veterans about similar big policy changes, and they said it may take 10 to 25 years to get to that point. However, with today’s atmosphere of constant connectivity and information always being shared, he hopes the ramp-up for the produce safety rule will be shorter. Producers will be especially eager to adopt those measures beacause they increase safety among the very people who buy their products.
“I think that's another reason why maybe the small farmer's market CSA guy is seeing less incident is that, hey, they're looking at their clientele every single day,” Daniels said. “They know people by first name. And who knows, that's just a little anecdotal thing, but it's really putting the food on the fork and watching it go in people's mouths.
“And if we can get everybody kind of thinking in that way and educated — not just trained — [it will make sense]. It's the education behind it, and if we can continue to educate folks, I think we're just going to have a safer and safer system.”