Many Maine farmers are working to comply with the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act’s Produce Safety Rule. This rule establishes science-based standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing and holding of fruits and vegetables, and it is part of a comprehensive food safety system upgrade to help prevent illnesses and deaths caused by contaminated food.
The first major compliance date for the Produce Safety Rule arrived on Jan. 26, when larger farms had to meet many of the new prevention-oriented standards. The compliance date for smaller farms, which is likely more applicable to Maine farmers, is one to two years away, depending on the farm size.
It’s important that farmers know that the FDA has put resources in place to help them understand what is required, how to meet those requirements and, importantly, what is not required. We don’t want anyone to be expending resources unnecessarily.
We have committed both staff and funds to this effort. For example, our Produce Safety Network was established to support farmers all over the country, and its team members are regionally based so that they know the growing conditions and challenges unique to each state. There are four network members in the Northeast, including one in Maine, who are ready to provide support.
In 2017 alone, the network’s staff participated in educational visits to 117 U.S. farms to listen to the challenges faced by farmers, learn about unique growing conditions and practices, and directly address questions and concerns farmers have about the produce safety requirements.
The FDA, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has also made substantial investments in education. The federally funded Northeast Center to Advance Food Safety at the University of Vermont has worked with educational partners throughout the Northeast, including Maine, to support farmers’ efforts to comply with the Produce Safety Rule. Additional funding was provided to the National Farmers Union Foundation to support education for local farmers, including those who engage in sustainable and organic farming.
Working with the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, we will also be participating in On-Farm Readiness Reviews this year to help farmers assess how ready they are to comply with the produce provisions that apply to them. These reviews will be conducted by a team of state and federal personnel who will visit farms in an educational capacity to provide technical assistance. The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry has joined this effort to provide On-Farm Readiness Reviews to Maine farmers, who have already been signing up for reviews.
We also have the FSMA Technical Assistance Network, where farmers can pose and get answers to questions related to Food Safety Modernization Act implementation. Inquiries submitted to the network are answered by FDA experts. Information specifically for Maine farmers, including about On-Farm Readiness Reviews, can be found on the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s website, maine.gov/dacf/qar/fsma.
The FDA is providing financial support for the development of state produce safety programs through federally funded cooperative agreements. Maine has been granted $1.2 million in the past two years, with which it has been and will be educating farmers through organized trainings, seminars and the On-Farm Readiness Reviews. This includes the Maine agriculture department’s collaboration with University of Maine Cooperative Extension to host Produce Safety Alliance trainings for farmers. More than 45 Maine farmers have already received the training.
The FDA and our partners in state government, academia, cooperative extension services and the produce industry are committed to working with farms of all sizes, whether they are covered by the Produce Safety Rule or not, to support them in their efforts to keep the fruits and vegetables we all serve our families as safe as possible.
I recognize the challenges ahead and want Maine farmers to know that we are taking steps to minimize those challenges wherever we can while still protecting protect public health.
Stephen Ostroff is the deputy commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Follow BDN Editorial & Opinion on Facebook for the latest opinions on the issues of the day in Maine.