The Food Safety Modernization Act took another step toward implementation in early January when the Food and Drug Administration released for public comment proposed rules on Preventive Controls for Human Food and Standards for Produce Safety.

The proposals build on existing voluntary industry guidelines for food safety, which many producers, growers and others currently follow. The FDA expects to soon issue its proposed rule on importer foreign supplier verification, and future proposed rules will address preventive controls for accreditation of third-party auditors.

All produce shipped to the U.S. will have to comply with the rule, which covers all fruits and vegetables “except those rarely consumed raw, produced for personal consumption, or destined for commercial processing that will reduce microorganisms of public health concern,” the FDA says.

The law exempts smaller growing and processing operations that fall below an annual income threshold of $500,000 for the past three years.

The industry will scrutinize the rules, said Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications with the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association

“We have a comment period of about four months, and we’re going to just run over them with a fine-tooth comb and make some comments back,” he said.

The task of reading hundreds of pages of new rules might be intimidating, Gilmer said.

It’s a major task for Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers, as well, said Hank Giclas, senior vice president for science, technology and strategic planning.

“At the same time, we’re looking at specifically what are some things we can do to take food safety predictions to the next level by, say, for example, trying to facilitate sharing of data and information across industry peers to be able to look for gaps and maybe understand more about if contamination occurs, where is it occurring and why, and if it’s growing where and why,” he said.

The rules likely will hit smaller growers hardest, even with an exemption in place, said Gary Wishnatzki, owner of grower-shipper Wish Farms and traceback and data software system VirtualOne in Plant City, Fla.

“The larger players are already doing the things that are important for food safety and traceability,” he said.

Wishnatzki said small operators should emphasize that all industry participants, regardless of scale, are “going about things in a safe manner and know the rules are science-based and not just based on somebody’s size.”

Mary Ostlund, marketing director with Homestead, Fla.-based Brooks Tropicals LLC, said there are three areas to examine where the FDA proposal is concerned: changes in operations, redundant checks in the system, and effect on industry segments.

Where operations are concerned, Brooks grows, packs and ships nearly 70% of what it sells, Brooks said.

“Our fields, harvesting crews, packinghouses and distribution centers have been food safety-audited by an independent third-party auditor for years,” she said.

Ostlund said she anticipates the company having to make no operational changes under the new rules.

Canada has been moving on food safety, as well, with Royal Assent given in November to the Safe Food for Canadians Act, which will trigger regulations and policy designed to strengthen government’s role in food safety.

The Canadian Produce Marketing Association has been active in the formulation of that country’s new rules, and it will comment on the FDA proposal, said Sally Blackman, CPMA’s manager of food safety and nutrition.

“Certainly, what comes down as the final rule is going to impact on Canada because our exporters are going to have to meet the FDA rule,” she said.

The Canadian industry is working to streamline its own rules and is eager to harmonize them with U.S. law, Blackman said.

“Our government is looking to align as closely as possible, within reason,” she said.

It’s a wait-and-see process for some in Canada, said Richard Lee, compliance coordinator for the Leamington-based Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association.

“We’re embracing the concepts and we just need to determine how those proposed changes will impact the way we do business,” he said.

Cost and potential trade barriers are among the top concerns, he said.

“My understanding is the proposal will provide all our members an opportunity to comply,” he said.