New law will impact produce growers, shippers

Window closing quickly on public input

WESLACO –  For fruit and vegetable producers and shippers, one of the most important meetings of their careers will be held April 22-23 in Austin, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service produce expert.

Dr. Juan Anciso, an AgriLife Extension citrus and vegetable specialist in Weslaco, will provide training on new laws affecting produce growers and shippers. (AgriLife Communications photo by Rod Santa Ana)

Dr. Juan Anciso, an AgriLife Extension citrus and vegetable specialist in Weslaco, will provide training on new laws affecting produce growers and shippers. (AgriLife Communications photo by Rod Santa Ana)

The Texas Food Safety Conference will be held from 4 p.m. April 22 to 5 p.m. April 23 at the Sheraton Austin Hotel at the Capitol, 701 E. 11th Street.

“This meeting will likely be one of the last opportunities for fruit and vegetable producers and shippers to voice their opinions on new legal requirements that will dictate how they run their businesses,” said Dr. Juan Anciso, a citrus and vegetable specialist in Weslaco.

The proposed law is called the Food Safety Modernization Act, Anciso said. It sets mandatory requirements and standards on how certain fruits and vegetables make their way from the farm soil to consumers in an effort to prevent foodborne illnesses.

“The United States government, more specifically the Food and Drug Administration, is taking comments on the implementation of a new law that will have huge impacts on how growers and shippers handle fruits and vegetables,” Anciso. “The scary part is that the list of what will be required of growers and shippers could fill a book and at this point, there are a lot of unknowns.”

The act was signed into law by President Obama in January 2011, he said. But growers have an opportunity to provide input on specifics before the law is enacted.

“The Food and Drug Administration came out with preliminary specifics of the law in mid-March,” Anciso said. “The FDA will take public comments on those specifics until May 16. It will then take a few months, I’d estimate, before the FDA makes any changes, if any, based on those comments. And finally, it goes to the Code of Federal Register. There will be a grace period of about a year for people to get up to speed on the new law, but once it gets into the register, it becomes an enforceable law and producers and shippers will then have to be legally compliant with that law.”

The proposed regulations are complex and cover most every step of growing and shipping fruits and vegetables, including imported produce, he said.

“The regulations cover everything: soil, irrigation water, labor, crop inputs, equipment, buildings, shipping and more. Once the law is enacted, AgriLife Extension will schedule at least eight meetings to help educate growers and shippers about the new regulations. There is a petition out there to extend the comment period, but for now, time is running out on having any input on what the law will require.”

Most produce growers, shippers and retailers, such as grocery stores, are already voluntarily practicing many of the requirements that will likely be legally required soon, Anciso said. But it’s the unknown that has him and others concerned.

“At this point I’m especially concerned about water quality requirements, especially since a lot of our irrigation water comes from watersheds in Mexico,” he said. “If a particular water release from Mexico comes with documented high levels of microbes, which often happens, growers may be prohibited from using that water, even though our studies show that microbe levels drop off almost completely by the time they reach the farm.”

Exactly which water quality standards the government will settle on is debatable, Anciso said.

“There’s no science at this point to determine what criteria constitutes ‘safe water.’ For now, I think the FDA is using standards that establish water that’s safe for swimmers. But they may go with water standards used by the World Health Organization, which allows for higher levels of contaminants. Or they may settle on standards somewhere in between.”

Other unknowns include how much these new requirements will cost producers, which growers will be exempt from complying and how strictly rules will be enforced, he said.

“The FDA has published estimates of what it will cost, depending on the size of the farm, but who knows what the actual costs will be? There’s also a list of fruits and vegetables that will and won’t be covered, somewhat based on whether they are cooked before being eaten. And there are income levels that determine whether an operation needs to comply. It’s all very complex and somewhat open for debate at this time.”

Anciso said the meeting is being held in Austin to accommodate administrators from state agencies that will be involved in enforcing the new law, but growers and shippers are encouraged to attend.

Speakers and their topics include: Tom Stenzel, president, United Fresh Produce Association, Washington D. C., an update on United Fresh; Anciso, water quality testing; Dr. Trevor Suslow, Extension specialist, University of California at Davis, produce safety and application to Texas produce; Jeff Lucas, Quanta Labs, San Antonio, determining food safety hazards and control risks.

Other activities include a panel discussion on what the new rules mean to producers and lunch with Todd Staples, Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, and Dr. David Lakey, Texas Commissioner of the Department of State Health Services. Closing comments will be provided by Jed Murray and Ray Prewett, Texas Vegetable Association president and executive vice president, respectively.

For more information, contact Anciso at 956-968-5581or j-anciso@tamu.edu.

For more information on the Food Safety Modernization Act, go to http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=FDA-2011-N-0921-0001.

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