FDA issues new food safety rules

Lettuce in the field. Photo by Kit Logan. Some rights reserved. http://www.flickr.com/photos/kitlogan/

Late last Friday, the Food and Drug Administration released two sweeping new regulations governing how fruits and vegetables are grown and processed.  According to NPR's blog, The Salt:

One rule covers operations at fruit and vegetable farms, focusing on those foods that we eat raw and have been the subject of several recent recalls, like leafy greens, tomatoes, melons, herbs, green onions and berries. They would require worker safety training, handwashing, clean water and monitoring the presence of animals in the field that could spread illness.  The other proposed rule would require food processors to develop and follow detailed plans for preventing contamination of their products.

The rules are largely being applauded.  Food safety advocates have called for stricter rules as crops from spinach to cilantro to lettuce have caused significant illnesses.  The PewCharitable Trusts' food program said the rules will "empower the Food and Drug Administration to take sweeping measures to prevent foodborne illnesses, which sicken about 48 million Americans each year at a cost of more than $77 billion."

The rules exempt small farmers who sell less than $500,000 worth of produce a year and sell mostly to local markets.  But some small farmers are still concerned they'll have to comply with the complicated regulations.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on a major development in food safety in the U.S.

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  1. Hand washing, proper toilet facilities, and clean water are all very good ideas, and will make things better for both farm worker and consumer, but please be sensible; Wash your produce before using it. It has never been safe to assume that you could just eat out of the bag, and it never will.

  2. Stronger regs may soothe nerves, but it's unlikely that they will have any effect on the safety of our food supply. The reason:the regulations are not adequately enforced because the FDA employs approximately 1,000 inspectors nationwide, far too few to oversee our vast food system. The agency inspected 6% of domestic food producers in 2011, and 0.4% of foreign importers. (These figures are from Bloomberg News article http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-10-11/food-sickens-millions-as-industry-paid-inspectors-find-it-safe.html)

    The reality is that in many cases food safety is ensured by private firms hired by the food companies themselves to "audit" their facilities. These auditors are not required to meet federal safety standards and their findings are not made public. Many audits do not include testing for pathogens. '“Most companies won’t let third-party auditors look for pathogens,” [Jeffrey] Kornacki [owner of Microbiology Solutions] says. “They don’t want your results shutting them down.”'

    And food imported into the US from countries with poorer quality control often passes into consumer hands with even less oversight. It's not a bad thing to specify stricter sanitation in handling foodstuffs but until we mend our food supply system these regulations are not going to make our food safer.

  3. Michael & Shovel – Thanks for reading and posting! Hope you'll bookmark and come regularly. Food safety is tricky. I went to a presentation by an E Coli expert and he showed how it can "hide" in the folds of lettuce cells that no cleaning can remove. And yes, a shortage of inspectors et al is a huge issue. But is it better to do nothing? Isn't that like saying well, guns are gonna kill people anyway, so why bother regulating them (which a lot of people are saying).

    On the flip side, these regs are onerous and costly for farmers. And many farmers right now are feeling bombarded by what the American Farm Bureau calls "the regulatory creek". How's that for mixed metaphors?

  4. It sounds like what you're saying, David, is that we are getting the worst of both worlds – onerous regulation that is ineffective. Hard to disagree, although it is important to talk about specifics. Requiring decent sanitation for fieldworkers, though it is costly for farmers, seems like a common sense regulation.
    As in your gun control analogy, it really comes down to what level of suffering and death we as a society are willing to tolerate in the name of individual freedom. Or in the name of cheap food.

  5. Re: the small farm exemption. I share the concern that over-regulation may trickle down to folks unable to gear up for state-of-the-art safety procedures. On the other hand, it's hard to work up very much sympathy for the Cargills or Kraft Foods of the world who can ignore safety concerns with impunity.

  6. I'd like to point out that there is a "direct marketing" exemption in these new rules, and rightfully so. Direct producer and consumer relationships such as CSA's would be free to trade and negotiate on their own without any interference. This point should not be taken lightly, as it offers hope for future opportunities towards real food sovereignty.
    If the FDA understands the difference between local direct marketing and commodified corporate production/distribution on whole raw foods, will they eventually ease up on canned and preserved foods as well? Time will tell.

    • and maybe even milk!!