FDA tweaks food safety rules due next year

FILE - This Feb. 7, 2012 file photo shows a shopper walking down the canned soup aisle at a grocery store. (AP Photo/Al Behrman, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The government will rewrite sweeping new food safety rules after farmers complained that earlier proposals could hurt business, the Food and Drug Administration said Friday.

The FDA’s new proposals would allow farmers to meet water quality standards more easily and to harvest crops sooner after using raw manure as fertilizer.

The FDA offered the revised rules Friday, and the final rules are due next fall. The FDA has been haggling over how to write them since Congress passed a food safety law in 2010. Regulators say balancing the need for tighter food safety standards after major outbreaks in spinach, eggs, peanuts and cantaloupe against the needs of farmers who are new to such regulations has been a challenge.

Michael Taylor, FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, says the agency is trying to “achieve the goal of food safety in a practical way.” The rules are new terrain for the agency, he says.

The rules proposed last year would require farmers to take new precautions against contamination, making sure workers’ hands are washed, irrigation water is clean and that animals stay out of fields, among other things. Food manufacturers would also have to submit food safety plans to the government to show they are keeping their operations clean. Those changes would in many cases require new equipment, paperwork and record-keeping.

None of those priorities would change in the revised rule. But after complaints from farmers big and small who said the rules were too burdensome, the new proposal would lower some standards for the amount of bacteria that can be found in irrigation water and reduce the frequency with which it is tested, in some cases. The proposal also reduces the amount of time required between fertilizing crops with raw manure and harvest and allows farmers to hold produce in a packing house without further regulations. The smallest farms would continue to be exempted from many of the rules.

The organic industry had expressed concerns about the rules, especially because many organic farmers use raw manure as fertilizer and try to treat irrigation water with fewer chemicals.

“This approach has less potential to impose economic hardship on organic farmers, while at the same time supporting the safest food supply in the world,” said Gwendolyn Wyard of the Organic Trade Association.

The rules would mark the first time the FDA would have real authority to regulate food on farms. The agency said when it proposed the rules that they could cost large farms $30,000 a year.

The food safety law was passed by Congress at the end of 2010, weeks before Republicans assumed control of the House. Since then, many GOP lawmakers have said the rules are too burdensome for farmers. Some Democrats advocating for organic farmers have also been critical, saying small farms can’t afford the new standards.

Supporters have said the new laws are needed after several high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks. While many farmers and food manufacturers already follow good food safety practices, the law would aim to ensure that all of them do. Government inspectors have pointed to dirty equipment, unsanitary conditions and animal feces as likely causes for salmonella, E. coli and listeria poisonings that have sickened hundreds in some of the recent outbreaks. There are an estimated 3,000 deaths a year from foodborne illness.

The rules governing produce are already somewhat tailored to make the changes easier on farmers. They would apply only to certain fruits and vegetables that pose the greatest risk, like berries, melons, leafy greens and other foods that are usually eaten raw. A farm that produces green beans that will be cooked and canned, for example, would not be regulated.

In addition to regulating farms and food manufacturing facilities, the food safety law authorized more inspections by the FDA and gave the agency additional powers to shut down facilities. The law also required stricter standards on imported foods.

The new proposal will have a 75 day comment period. The FDA is legally required to finalize the rules by next year after they were sued by an advocacy group last year for missing deadlines.

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