Michigan fruit and vegetable farmers are breathing a sigh of relief in the wake of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's recent announcement it's taking a package of flawed food safety rules back to the old drawing board.
Michael Taylor, FDA's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, wrote in a Dec. 19 statement that the agency "appreciates and takes very seriously the extensive input … received from produce farmers and others in the agricultural sector on the proposed FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rules on produce safety and preventive controls."
After releasing those rules in January 2013, the agency launched an extensive campaign seeking public comment—and got such an earful the comment period was extended three times before finally deciding the rules needed considerable retooling.
"Based on our discussions with farmers, the research community and other input we have received, we have learned a great deal, and our thinking has evolved," Taylor wrote. "The new safety standards must be flexible enough to accommodate reasonably the great diversity of the produce sector, and they must be practical to implement."
Among the "significant changes" the agency will affect are modifications to water quality standards and testing, standards for utilizing manure and compost, provisions affecting mixed-use facilities and procedures for water withdrawals. FDA anticipates releasing the overhauled rules by early summer 2014.
"We submitted comments at the public hearing in Chicago in March," says Michigan Farm Bureau Staff Attorney Tyler Ernst, referring to both Farm Bureau and representatives of the Michigan Agricultural Commodity Marketing Association Processing Apple Division. "We voiced our points of contention—where we felt the FDA got it wrong, and where we saw room for improvement. We followed that up with some educational efforts for growers across the state to make sure they understood the implications of what was being discussed.
"Specifically we thought the proposed rules regarding water testing were pretty onerous—testing bi-weekly if you irrigate with surface water, and to a quality standard that was more appropriate for recreational waters—like a swimming beach—than for irrigating crops," Ernst says. "I think they also lowballed the cost of compliance for many of these rules, and just flat-out took the wrong approach in trying to impose a uniform, flat approach to produce safety, when the staggering diversity of fruit and vegetable crops makes that completely unfeasible."
Dist. 1 Congressman Dan Benishek (R-Crystal Falls) chimed in as well, submitting a letter to lawmakers in the Farm Bill Conference Committee that urged them to work with famers and food safety advocates toward achieving the necessary goals without risking farms' economic viability.
"Being a doctor for 30 years, I know the importance of having a safe food supply. We grow a lot of food in Northern Michigan and it means a lot of jobs up here," wrote Benishek, Michigan's only member of the House Committee on Agriculture.
Benishek worked with farmers and processors in his district to help communicate their concerns to the FDA. He also hosted FDA officials in his northern Michigan district so they could see firsthand how farmers work to protect the food they produce.
"Our farmers … told me duplicative new regulations from Washington could cost jobs and jack up the price of food," Benishek says. "So instead of a one-size-fits-all plan, we need a balanced approach that protects our food supply and our farmers."
Benishek also had the House version of the farm bill amended to require that FDA review the FSMA's economic impact on farms prior to the revised rules' implementation.
"I think to get any federal agency to essentially admit they were wrong is pretty rare—almost unheard of," Ernst says. "It sounds like they recognize they didn't have the expertise the first time around. Clearly they need to work with other agencies and the agriculture industry itself to get it right the next time around.
"We'll have to wait and see what their revised approach looks like. I'd say we're cautiously optimistic—that's fair."