Dec 3, 2019Some growers ‘wait and see’ with Produce Rule
Startup and ongoing costs associated with the Produce Rule of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) remain hard to swallow for some specialty crops’ growers, but there’s little recourse in a market that requires the highest standards of food safety.
Agricultural economists with the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) wrote in a June report that some growers were unclear on specifics of the Produce Rule, and were not fully adapting to all its requirements.
“Some growers were taking a wait-and-see approach before making costly investments to comply, as undertaking unnecessary changes may unduly raise startup costs related to the PR,” according to the ERS report. Starting a formal food safety program includes costs for hiring staff or consultants, training supervisors and employees, replacing inadequate buildings and equipment, according to the ERS. There are also ongoing costs for recordkeeping, training and water testing.
Some of the Produce Rule requirements have yet to be nailed down. The ERS’ agricultural economists gave a couple of examples: Water standards that were delayed, and manure application standards that, as of June, had not yet been written.
The ERS noticed a difference between small growers (under $500,000 in annual sales) and larger growers were implementing the produce rule. While some smaller growers may struggle to designate staff to handle paperwork, many of the large growers already are veterans of many customer safety audits and have well-established food safety programs, what the ERS ag economists called “a culture of food safety.” But they had also heard about what growers call “audit fatigue.”
“The growers emphasized that food safety is only one of many attributes that make a produce company viable in the modern market,” the ag economists wrote.
David J. Goldenberg, a food safety and security training coordinator with the University of California-Davis’ Western Institute for Food Safety and Security, trains many growers on the Produce Safety Rule.
Goldenberg said he’s had very little “pushback” from the growers, although he admitted not all were taking the changes well.
“I think a lot of it is just common sense and a lot of good agricultural practices,” said Goldenberg. “The only area I really see where people have a bit of pushback, is the water testing.”
Growers who use municipal water for irrigation just need a letter from their provider documenting that the water has been treated. Untreated groundwater needs to be tested for E. coli annually, but growers with wells in the same area may be able to share tests, Goldenberg said. Surface water used for irrigation needs to be tested at least five times annually.
The ERS economists reported that growers were uncertain of the exact requirements, and that the adoption of practices meeting the rule requirements wasn’t shaky.
“In a 2015-16 USDA survey, 71% of growers who used untreated groundwater in the field tested it at least once annually, as currently required by the (Produce Rule), while only 15% who used untreated surface water in the field tested it at least five times annually, as required by the (Produce Rule),” according to the study.
Goldenberg shares the inspection form with the growers who take his classes.
“I’m often asked in my trainings, ‘What are the inspectors going to do? What are they going to say? What are they looking for?’” Goldenberg said. The form itself seems straightforward. “It’s more of a question and answer format – if the rule says, ‘X,’ show me ‘X.’ If the rule says ‘Y,” show me ‘Y.’”
The smallest growers have little to prove in order to qualify for an exemption from the rule.
“If they are $25,000 or under in their sales, then all they have to do is show their financial records and show that they’re under the threshold, and then they’re off the hook,” Goldenberg said. Income/expense records, sales records and tax paperwork could be used to document the size of the farm, he said.
The ERS ag economists wondered whether farms would be subdivided just to take advantage of the least-difficult rules. “Exemptions for small growers allow for the unique arrangements surrounding marketing directly to consumers, restaurants, or retailers, but it is uncertain whether growers would restructure their businesses to claim these exemptions,” they wrote.
Goldenberg said growers of all sizes that he trains are generally able to comply with the rules that apply to their operations.
“They may say – and what I hear – ‘I have to do more record keeping?’ Because they do have OSHA or other state regulations,” he said. “Yes, they may have to do more records than what they normally do. But they would keep them out of hot water, too, in that they’re following the law, but also you would assume they would want to sell a product that is not going to make people sick. I don’t know that these standards are all that difficult or onerous to meet. If they are in food production, they would want to produce good food that’s safe and wholesome.”
The ERS economists reported some growers “lamented that excessive and ever-changing food safety standards and intensive recordkeeping distract from their core business of growing produce.” But, “many were willing to make investments that they believed reduced food safety risks and satisfied buyers’ requirements,” they wrote.
A wait-and-see approach has been in part possible due to the limits of enforcement activity. Goldenberg said there are only 16 food safety inspectors to serve an estimated 23,000-28,000 produce growers in California.
But he argued that playing wait and see wasn’t a good decision.
“They’re all independent individuals that have run businesses their own way, and I understand that,” Goldenberg said. “And now you’ve got a governmental agency that says you’re going to run it this way. I understand the pushback. But what’s the alternative? Putting out some bad product, getting people sick and then being sued as a business, or potentially, if they were aware they had a problem, going to jail? I don’t think that’s a good alternative.”
He said most growers find compliance is within reach, even if there is an expense.
“Everybody that walks out of my training feels good that they can comply. Now, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have to make any changes to anything, but I don’t think it’s that onerous.”
— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor