The produce industry is in the midst of figuring out how best to comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law by President Obama in 2011, and administered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Implementation deadlines have been rolling out since late 2016, with the entire industry readying for compliance with most regulations by the spring of 2018.
Contamination by foodborne E. coli, salmonella, listeria, and the like affect millions of people in the United States, resulting in as many as 3,000 deaths per year. The intent of FSMA, the first major food safety reform in more than seven decades, is to maintain the safety of the U.S. food supply by focusing proactively on prevention, rather than reacting to incidents after the fact. Reaching this goal involves striving for continuous improvement, implementing preventive measures that are backed by science, ensuring effective training, and documenting all safety activities on an ongoing basis.
Much of FSMA is based on existing best practices; complying with the law is, in many ways, more a matter of improving recordkeeping and paperwork and introducing a training regimen than about wholesale changes in core safety processes and procedures. Training and documentation are key to all of FSMA’s rules. “Training is essential for each member of an organization,” says John Lynch, national quality assurance manager for RPE, a Wisconsin-based grower and distributor of potatoes and onions. “Year over year, we’re refining and advancing our training content to communicate risks, controls, and solicit input for continuous improvement.”
Despite familiarity with food safety in general, there is still trepidation among many in the industry. “It’s not so much about the requirements as it is about the liability,” comments Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology at United Fresh Produce Association. “No matter what regulations you follow, produce is a raw product and something could go wrong. It’s the threat of criminal prosecution that scares people.”
Following is an overview of the FSMA regulations, six of which are applicable to produce, with each targeting a different segment of the industry.
Preventive Controls for Human Food
Primarily affects: Off-farm processors, warehouses, packers
Final rule effective date: November 16, 2015
Compliance deadline rollout: general: September 19, 2016 through January 26, 2018; small businesses: September 18, 2017 through September 18, 2019; very small businesses: January 1, 2019 through September 19, 2020
Requirements: Requires facilities to implement a food safety plan for preventing and addressing contamination by chemical, biological, and physical means and to train employees in how to follow the procedures.
Exemptions or modified requirements: Facilities with annual revenues of under $1 million.