BALTIMORE — All presenters at a Food Safety Summit session on agricultural water agreed grower-shippers need to use safe water in their operations, but they also agreed there isn’t absolute science to backup proposed water regulations from the Food and Drug Administration.
Elizabeth Bihn, director of the FDA-funded Produce Safety Alliance at Cornell University, said she disagrees with a zero-tolerance approach to water testing and expressed concern that the proposed water rule will be impossible for many growers to comply with.
“There are lots of requirements but little data to show a (significant) reduction in risk,” Bihn said. “We’re spending a lot of time chasing a ghost.”
Bihn said she wants the government and industry to define what an acceptable risk level is for fresh produce. She growers could be driven out of business by expensive and inconclusive testing requirements. That will make produce costs rise, consumption decrease and the goal of better public health via diets rich in fresh fruits and vegetables will not be met, she said.
Jim Gorny, vice president for food safety and technology at the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., is a former FDA official and agreed with Bihn and other panelists that numeric standards are not the answer to water safety in the fresh produce industry.
“One size does not fit all,” Gorny said, citing the value of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement requirements but cautioning that they are only appropriate for specific commodities growing in specific regions.
Trevor Suslow, a food safety researcher and extension specialist for the University of California-Davis, agreed. Suslow said farm-specific testing requirements and consideration of how close to harvest water comes into contact with fresh produce are two key factors.
”The closer to harvest, the greater the risk,” Suslow said. “You must test, though. You have to measure to manage.”
FDA deputy director Mike Taylor touched on the proposed water rule during a town hall session at the Food Safety Summit. He said comments from industry have led the agency to work on revisions, with new versions expected to be published in June.
“The Food Safety Modernization Act is not a destination,” Taylor said. “It’s a journey and we’re not there yet.”