Industry leaders say the Food and Drug Administration’s revised food safety rules are a step in the right direction for fresh produce operators but still have room for improvement.

The revised rules, released by the FDA Sept. 19 and published in the Federal Register Sept. 29, include the produce safety rule, the preventive controls rule and the foreign supplier verification program. The comment period on the revised regulations will extend until mid-December, according to the FDA. Final regulations on the rules will be released later next year.

Revisions in the produce safety rule were appreciated, said Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of Sacramento-based California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.

“I think they did a good job and listening to and answering a lot of concerns we expressed,” Horsfall said.

Horsfall said the FDA risk management approach to water testing is an improvement on the original rule, which called for surface water testing every seven days. Horsfall said the industry thought the original proposal was excessive and growers are glad to see the agency move away from that.

David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the Washington, D.C.-based Fresh Produce Association, saw both good and bad in the revisions.

“Some of the changes they proposed I think the industry will be happy with — like the water and compost rules — but some of the things that were not changed I’m disappointed in and I don’t think (the FDA) took the produce industry into consideration,” Gombas said.

Revisions to the foreign supplier verification program fell short of industry expectations, he said.

Horsfall said the FDA made changes in how it defines farms versus a mixed-type facility, and how it distinguishes harvest from processing activities.

“They appeared to have got that pretty right, and that’s a big improvement,” Horsfall said.

Jim Gorny, vice president of food safety and technology for the Newark,Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said the FDA revised its definition of farms to eliminate the overlap between the preventive control rule and the produce rule.

“If you are on a farm, you are covered by the produce rule,” he said.

However, packinghouses that are not on a farm still must deal with the preventive controls rule, and Gorny said it would make sense if all fruit and vegetable packinghouses — both on farm and off farm — were under the produce rule to avoid confusions.

Gombas aid the FDA rules will put stand-alone packinghouses at an economic disadvantage.

The produce safety rule also excludes farms of less than $25,000 in covered sales from the regulation, Gorny said.

“Granted, (the small farms) do represent a small number of servings, but if there is a foodborne illness outbreak associated with a very small farm, it still affects everybody that is doing the right thing,” he said.

 Water and product testing

 The revised water requirement may not be any more science-based than the original proposal FDA but it does give growers more flexibility, Gombas said. “It will require testing for something that we know doesn’t relate to food safety,” he said, referring to the agency’s stipulation that water is tested for generic E. coli.

The new die-off provision included in the water testing language will make it easier for onion growers, potato growers and apple growers to live with the water standard, he said.

“My advice to FDA is to keep hard numbers out the rule because we know it is not science-based at this point,” Gombas said.

FDA’s language on mandatory product testing in food facilities is troubling, Gombas said. “For fresh-cut, that could kill the industry if everybody had to do what Earthbound Farm does now, which is testing every lot of product — that will completely change the fresh cut industry,” he said. End product testing doesn’t make the food any safer and will add expense, he said.

“Product testing will be onerous for the produce industry,” he said.

 Foreign Supplier loopholes

 Relating to the Foreign Supplier Verification Program, Gombas said the revised rules still require the importer to do a hazard analysis and will require an audit, going above the demands of the produce safety rule. What’s more, the rule excludes very small foreign suppliers, those that have less than $25,000 of sales of covered commodities. That may cause some importers to source from very small foreign suppliers instead of using an aggregator to avoid regulation, Gombas said.

That kind of loophole won’t help produce safety, he said.