New food safety rules still being developed

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Although Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2010, the Food and Drug Administration is still in the process of developing rules to enforce the law. The rules seek to enhance safety regulations by requiring more documentation and shifting the focus to prevention rather than response.

Complying with these new rules could be especially challenging for farmers and other food producers with limited financial resources, said LSU AgCenter extension food safety specialist Achyut Adhikari. Proposed FSMA rules touch every aspect of agriculture operations, including water and biological soil amendment quality, workers' hygiene, wild animal control and equipment storage.

Adhikari, who joined the AgCenter in February, is developing food safety educational outreach programs that will help producers implement food safety practices and satisfy updated requirements. Meeting and maintaining the level of water quality proposed by FSMA will be an important issue in Louisiana, he said.

One proposed FSMA rule states that if E. coli is detectable in surface water, growers are prohibited from using that water during or after harvest of produce that is consumed raw. E. coli can be used as an indicator of pathogens that are difficult to test for, Adhikari said.

Testing for E. coli, however, is time-consuming and expensive. Adhikari said if a farmer suspects runoff is contaminating surface water, he or she must test that water every seven days. Still, producers can never have total control over their water supply.

"In Louisiana, we have a lot of rain," Adhikari said. "Because of the rain, the water will carry contaminants from the soil to the surface water. In such occasions, alternatives can be taken, including changing the irrigation system or treating the water.”

FSMA also permits producers to treat their water, but the FDA has not yet specified approved treatments.

The law will also affect the way some producers use their land. Raw manure is the main source of several pathogens. If a grower uses raw manure for soil enrichment, he or she must wait nine months after application to harvest the food crop.

This is problematic in Louisiana, Adhikari said, where it is common for farmers to pasture animals in areas where they grow crops such as pecans. It also means producers must take extra precautions against wild animals — if they come in contact with food crops, the producer cannot legally harvest it.

The AgCenter is assembling a food safety task force of experts from various departments that will develop programs for growers. One goal they have is to identify alternative, science-based treatments and practices that reach FSMA-mandated levels of protection but are more appropriate for Louisiana.

Making sure producers understand and comply with FSMA rules is crucial, said Gina E. Eubanks, LSU AgCenter associate vice chancellor and program leader for nutrition and food science.

"In the long run, no farmer wants to produce unsafe food," Eubanks said. "Sometimes, that costs. It may be an extra step that you have to do when you're processing, or you would have to not use a certain chemical."

There are many steps on the route from farm to fork, Eubanks said, which means there are plenty of opportunities for contamination. While some precautions may prove expensive, taking simple measures such as hand washing can help prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses.

Just as red lights, stop signs and speed limits help prevent automobile accidents, FSMA strives to put regulations in place that prevent food-related accidents, Eubanks said.

Smaller growers are exempt from certain rules because they cannot be held to the same expectations as large farms, Adhikari said.

The FDA is reevaluating its original proposals based on feedback from the public. Adhikari said the revised rules may be more feasible to implement. Even though some will still involve an economic burden, reducing the number of cases of foodborne illnesses is important.


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