BRATTLEBORO—The range of discussion Monday morning at Brattleboro’s Latchis Theatre – from questions about butternut squash to concerns about global imports – shows the sweep of the federal government’s new food-safety rules.
But as federal and state officials worked to explain some of those rules to attendees who traveled from at least six other states, there was a common theme: Public education is critical, as is more federal funding to ensure that such education happens.
For Vermont Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross, the concern is ensuring that “the most significant rewrite of our food safety laws in 70 years” is understood by and fairly applied to the wide variety of farmers and food producers in the Green Mountain State.
“If this partnership is going to work – and that means work for the producers and the manufacturers – we need to have the FDA and the state partners fully equipped and able to implement this law in the ways that were envisioned,” Ross said.
The meeting was convened to discuss three of the seven new rules created under authority of the Food Safety Modernization Act, approved by Congress in late 2010 and signed by President Barack Obama the following month.
The act is geared toward curbing food-borne illness, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says affects one in six people in the United States – about 48 million people – annually. The law, the FDA says, is supposed to bolster food safety by “shifting the focus of federal regulators from responding to contamination to preventing it.”
The FDA spent years developing new food-safety rules, which are available at www.fda.gov/FSMA.
Mike Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, said those rules first were proposed in 2013. But an initial round of public comment showed that there were “significant issues,” Taylor said, so the FDA went back to work – in part by taking a New England tour.
The result was an amended set of rules that govern issues such as preventive controls for human food; preventive controls for animal food; and produce safety – the three regulations discussed at Monday’s meeting convened for the Northeast region.
Elements of the “human food” rule include mandatory establishment of written food-safety plans that include hazard analysis – which must take into account “known or reasonably foreseeable biological, chemical and physical hazards” – as well as “risk-based preventive controls” governing such matters as allergens, sanitation, and the food-supply chain.
The produce safety rule includes water quality regulations aimed at controlling E. coli; guidance for applying raw manure and compost; requirements to prevent contamination of sprouts; and regulations for worker training, health, and hygiene among other topics.
One lesson learned from the FDA’s New England tour in 2013, Taylor told the Brattleboro audience, was “just how truly diverse our food system is.” And he promised that, in implementing the new food-safety rules, protecting that diversity will be “a central theme of our work.”
“It has influenced the way in which we’ve written these regulations so that they are flexible, and they are adaptable to diverse settings,” Taylor said.
Taylor recalled a recent admonition from Ross: “You must educate before you regulate.” And he’s promising to take that even further when it comes to the Food Safety Modernization Act, pledging that the FDA will be “educating not only before, but while we regulate.”
To that end, the FDA is working on guidance documents that will spell out how food producers and handlers should comply with the new law.
Officials also are working to expand their partnerships with states, with Taylor noting that half of the FDA’s inspections already are conducted by states under contract with the federal agency.
The Food Safety Modernization Act authorizes federal grants for training, inspections, lab-capacity expansion, and other activities at the state level.
And Taylor said the federal government, in an attempt to ensure a level playing field for U.S. farmers and food producers who must abide by the new rules, is going to change the way it regulates imported food.
The FDA says 15 percent of the U.S. food supply is imported, including 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of the country’s seafood.
Currently, the agency focuses on inspections of food samples at points of entry into the country. Under the Food Safety Modernization Act, the FDA will be auditing food importers and also conducting more overseas inspections at farms and manufacturing facilities, Taylor said.
But all of those changes require money, and that is no given. The Obama administration reportedly has requested a $109.5 million increase in FDA funding, but Congress has not yet settled on a number.
“We cannot build an entirely new system without new resources. And so that’s really what’s at stake in the budget process that’s going on,” Taylor said. “It’s not just about building up the FDA. It’s largely about investing in the food system itself.”
Officials at Monday’s meeting praised Vermont’s congressional delegation for its support of such funding. U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., backed the FDA’s funding request in the fiscal 2016 appropriations process and will again make it a priority during the fiscal 2017 process, spokesman David Carle said.
The senator “agrees that sufficient funding is crucial for these new regulations to be rolled out in a way that works for Vermont food producers, that protects public health and that does not saddle the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets with a large unfunded mandate,” Carle said.
In the meantime, organizations like the University of Vermont Extension are working to help food producers cope with new rules.
Brattleboro-based UVM Extension professor Vern Grubinger said that, due to exemptions for smaller operations, there is “a relatively small number of farms” in Vermont that will have to comply with the new produce rule.
But Grubinger believes that “the marketplace will demand that all growers do something to address food safety.” So the Extension, along with the state Agency of Agriculture and others, will be working to help farmers understand “what they need to do both to comply with FSMA and to maintain their markets,” Grubinger said after Monday’s meeting.
One way for Vermont’s smaller vegetable and berry producers to help bolster their food-safety practices is a new pilot program called Community Accreditation for Produce Safety.
It’s a voluntary, online effort that will offer non-regulatory accreditation through the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Association, Grubinger said. More information is available at practicalproducesafetyvt.wordpress.com.
Such efforts may be critical given the growth and prominence of Vermont’s food and agricultural business sectors. Ross told the Latchis Theatre crowd that there have been 4,200 food and agriculture jobs created in the state over the past five years.
“We’ve been seeing this part of the economy grow by over 6 percent in the last five years, which is well above the statewide average,” Ross said. “So this is real economics for the state of Vermont, and quite significant.”