Reinventing the rules: How a new food safety law aims to cut down on foodborne illnesses

Hands have to be washed before gloves are put on. Dogs need to stay out of the fields. Sick employees must stay home even if they feel well enough to work. These are just some of the many rules Montgomery County Farm Bureau member Tim Terrill has in place for his produce farm.

Terrill is following Good Agricultural Practices guidelines that he learned during a three-hour course taught by Ohio State University educators. While it means more recordkeeping, Terrill sees the value of following these voluntary guidelines, saying it will help him comply with the Food Safety and Modernization Act that Congress passed in 2010. FSMA is the most sweeping overhaul of the nation’s food safety system in more than 70 years. Seven major rules comprise the law (see sidebar on page 34) with the last two released this year.

“It’s our goal and job to provide the very best produce for the consumer and make sure it’s safe,” said Terrill, a full-time student at Wright State University where he is studying environmental science. He started raising sweet corn, green beans and tomatoes three years ago on his family’s Miamisburg farm. “Yes, following (Good Agricultural Practices) causes a bit more headaches for paperwork but it’s good for the business and for the customers. Plus it’s getting us ready for major food safety changes that are coming.”

Signed into law in 2011, FSMA’s goal is to increase food safety, maintain consumer food confidence and reduce the number of foodborne illnesses such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria. Consumers, the food industry and regulators demanded changes in the nation’s food safety system after a series of deadly outbreaks sickened thousands of consumers who ate tainted spinach, peanut butter, fruit and other products. Every year about 48 million people (1 in 6 Americans) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Food and Drug Administration describes these foodborne illnesses as a “significant public health burden that is largely preventable.”

Under FSMA, the regulators can now focus more on preventing food safety problems rather than simply reacting to problems after they occur. It also gives FDA the authority to access a company’s food-safety plans and take action if rules aren’t being followed.

“The United States has a very safe food supply. Nineteen years worth of data shows that there were a total of 68 deaths due to produce (consumption) and not to discount the 68 people who died but that pales in comparison to other risks in the American lifestyle like violent crimes, car crashes and drug overdoses—more than 3,000 in Ohio last year,” said Don Stoeckel, Midwest regional Extension associate for the Produce Safety Alliance.

Tracing food illnesses back to the source will continue to be a challenge, Stoeckel said.

“It takes time for people to show symptoms and see their doctor and make that link. By the time that happens, a couple of weeks or more has passed and it’s a cold case,” he said.

For Terrill, his farm is just small enough to be exempt from federal regulation. Exemptions include produce typically not consumed raw, food grains, produce used for personal or on-farm consumption and farms that have a three-year average annual value of $25,000 or less of produce sold. Terrill anticipates his exemption status will change as his business grows, and he wants to be ready now rather than later.

“With the growth we’ve had the last three years, I kind of want to have this in place now. It’s a lot easier to change things with 40 acres than 200 acres,” he said.

For farmer Fred Osswald, he feels confident that the safety measures he’s had in place for years on the family’s produce farm will be similar to what’s required under FSMA’s produce rule starting in 2018. Not only does he follow Good Agricultural Practices guidelines like Terrill, but his operation is certified through the industry-driven Global Food Safety Initiative. Each year his Preble County farm, which sells wholesale cabbage, zucchini and squash, pays about $4,000 for food safety audits. Before FSMA was passed, food manufacturers had started demanding growers participate in these types of programs to show how they were trying to cut the risk of food-borne illnesses.

To illustrate how extensive the farm’s recordkeeping is, Osswald’s brother, Lane, pulled out several three-ring binders of records. They detail how and when equipment is sanitized, the storage cooler’s temperature, well water and produce testing results, employee training, worker health, seed source, fertilizer and pesticide applications and many other procedures.

“If there’s a recall, we can take it all the way back to the seed. Anytime anything touches the vegetables it’s recorded,” said Lane, an Ohio Farm Bureau state board member who testified in Chicago five years ago when the FDA asked for public input in developing the rules. Ohio Farm Bureau submitted comments about the rule on behalf of Ohio farmers.

When it comes to food safety, consumer confidence means everything. One bad experience can not only ruin a company but damage an entire industry. In 2009, a salmonella outbreak in peanut butter was traced back to a single Georgia processing plant but caused a 25 percent drop in peanut butter sales nationwide. That outbreak cost U.S. producers about $1 billion.

For Terrill, he knows reputation rules when it comes to growing food, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“All of our products are going from our family farm to your family table, and it needs to be fresh and safe,” he said. “I have a saying: ‘I wouldn’t feed anything to you that I wouldn’t feed to my own family.’”

Working on members’ behalf

Ohio’s agricultural community is unique because of the diversity of its products and practices. Ohio Farm Bureau gathered input from members about their operations and how the proposed regulations for the Food Safety and Modernization Act would affect them. Ohio Farm Bureau’s Adam Sharp moderated a Food and Drug Administration input session that drew from both large and small operations, including the Amish community. Ohio Farm Bureau commented on issues ranging from the practice of using working animals, treatment of farm markets and produce auctions and feasibility of utilizing some proposed standards in Ohio’s unique and robust produce industry.

That input was incorporated into the final rule, making compliance more feasible for farmers and local foods still available to consumers.

How will the Food Safety and Modernization Act be implemented?

The Food Safety Modernization Act is the first major overhaul of the nation’s food safety system in more than 70 years. The Food and Drug Administration has developed seven foundational rules for implementing FSMA:

  • Preventive Controls for Human Food: Requires that food facilities have safety plans that set forth how they will identify and minimize hazards.
  • Preventive Controls for Animal Food: Establishes current good manufacturing practices and preventive controls for food for animals.
  • Produce Safety: Establishes science-based standards for growing, harvesting, packing and holding produce on domestic and foreign farms.
  • Foreign Supplier Verification Program: Importers will be required to verify that food imported into the United States has been produced in a manner that provides the same level of public health protection as that required of U.S. food producers.
  • Third Party Certification: Establishes a program for the accreditation of third-party auditors to conduct food safety audits and issue certifications of foreign facilities producing food for humans or animals.
  • Sanitary Transportation: Requires those who transport food to use sanitary practices to ensure the safety of food.
  • Intentional Adulteration: Requires domestic and foreign facilities to address vulnerable processes in their operations to prevent acts intended to cause large-scale public harm.

Source: FDA