Chester County Ag Notes: Our Farmers are Under Pressure to Satisfy FDA Requirements

FDA officials inspecting fields near the Brandywine watershed.--photo via Delaware Business Online.

Food safety is a huge concern to all of us from farm producer to ultimate food consumer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there are 15 major pathogens which cause 95% of the illnesses and deaths from food borne illnesses. More than 8.9 million Americans are sickened by one of these pathogens and 53,245 Americans have to go to hospital and 2,377 die.          

The Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act was signed in to law in 2011 but was only finalized earlier this year. It puts into place mandatory prevention-based controls across the food supply to protect public safety and prevent illness. It was not surprising that food safety legislation, considered to be the most sweeping in more than 70 years, would take a further five years to refine and complete.

One of the major principles of the new legislation is the emphasis on prevention. Minimum safety standards are established for the production of human food and for the production of food for animals including employee training, hazard analysis and risk-based preventive controls. Safety standards are set for the safe growing, harvesting, packing and holding of fruits and vegetables except for produce that is not normally consumed raw such as pumpkins, squash, sweet corn and beans.          

Since we import around 20% of our food, FDA will ensure that imported products meet U.S. food safety standards.                                                                                         

FDA has been given authority to provide oversight to ensure the food industry is complying with mandated food safety practices and preventive controls. Third-party certification bodies will be accredited to conduct food safety audits and to issue certifications.                                                                                                                 

There is recognition that these fairly stringent requirements would be an undue burden for small businesses. All the farmers in Chester County with gross annual produce (vegetables, fruit, mushrooms and others) sales of more than $25,000 in gross annual sales are defined as “covered farms.” Guidance documents are being issued by FDA but farmers will be relying on the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and their local Penn State Extension office for more information and help. This was one of the reasons why Penn State Extension was so anxious to have additional funding this year to ensure adequate staffing.                                   

Key elements include training of employees with at least one supervisor taking a food safety training course. Water quality will also be a key factor to ensure microbial standards are met. Requirements for animal based soil amendments such as manure will be largely based on the National Organic Program. Finally record keeping will be a critical element in adhering to the new regulations.                                                                                     

 Farmers will have at least two years to come in to compliance for large farms (more than $500,000 gross sales) and four years for “very small” businesses (no more than $250,000 gross annual sales).                                                                   

Clearly most of our vegetable and fruit farmers will be affected by this legislation and they will need time to understand how they must comply with the regulations.                                                                                                                               

Food safety has always been a concern for farmers and the mushroom industry has been instituting their own standards as they understand that there must be strict attention to food safety at all stages of production, harvesting and packing. However it is likely that the produce safety rules for even the larger fruit and vegetable producer will require a significant commitment of time, money and manpower to ensure compliance.

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