(UPDATED COVERAGE, Jan. 14) SAVANNAH, Ga. — A week after the Food and Drug Administration released proposed food safety rules for fresh produce, growers at the Southeast Regional Fruit and Vegetable Conference heard about the importance of telling the FDA about potential concerns.

Southeast show digs into new food safety rulesThe Food Safety Modernization Act joined other explosive issues of immigration reform and Obamacare at the Jan. 10-13 convention.

On Jan. 11, David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, gave growers an overview on what the Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption rules do and do not cover.

He said the proposed rules cover fields and facilities involved in domestic and imported raw agricultural commodities and is actually less proscriptive than the audits growers experience.

“The harmonized standards have more provisions in their requirements than this proposal does,” Gombas said. “But this is consistent with all the major things you have to do in an audit anyway. If you pass an audit today, except for the testing provisions which are new, you’ll likely be in compliance with what they’re (FDA) proposing.”

Gombas urged growers to work with trade associations and file unified comments during the 120-day public comment period.

“I strongly advocate for you folks to think about how this affects you and if they (the FDA) got it right,” Gombas said. “Everyone has the right to comment but don’t just go up and say ‘this sucks.’

“Everybody’s comments matter, but if you get together as a group and submit comments, it will have a lot more strength with the FDA,” he said.

Gombas said United Fresh plans to solicit comments from the industry through meetings across the country.

During other sessions, lobbyists for show co-sponsor Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, LaGrange, and the head of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, discussed how issues will affect grower-shippers.

Frank Gasperini, the executive vice president of the Vienna, Va.-based council, said the agriculture sector should face some challenges when the Obama administration enforces its new health care rules.

“When 2014 comes and we have Obamacare in place, the federal government and regulatory agencies will have a collective ‘ah’ and will say, ‘OK, there are some things we need to fix now,’” he said. “It will take some time to round off the rough edges and find industries like agriculture in the bill that doesn’t fit very well and say they have to accommodate the outliers.”

Gasperini said agriculture’s seasonal workforce doesn’t fit with the new health care rules.
“The bottom line is it’s not going to be easy for you as employers as it’s an added expense and one size doesn’t fit all,” he said.

Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, Commerce, discussed Georgia and Washington, D.C., immigration reform efforts.

“Like the Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’ song, E-Verify is ‘you come in but you can never leave’,” Tolar said. “Once you get in the trap, you can’t get out. As the attorney general investigates companies and whether they’ve signed up, and should have signed up, if they determine your business should have signed up and you in fact did not, you get 30 days to sign up.”

Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia growers association, said the show drew record attendance of just below 3,000, up from last year’s 2,700.