New Food Safety Rules Delayed After Farmers Complain

Gannett News Service

December 23, 2013

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it was delaying a pair of food safety rules proposed in January after farmers protested they would harm their operations.

Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, said after meeting with farmers and others in the agricultural sector that the agency's thinking has "evolved," resulting in a need to overhaul some of the proposed rules affecting small and large farmers. Earlier this year, the FDA proposed rules that would require farmers to ensure irrigation water that touches fruits and vegetables isn't contaminated and mandate that farm workers have a place to wash their hands, among other measures.

"You spoke. We heard," Taylor began in a blog posted on the FDA's website announcing the delay. "Because of the input we received from farmers and the concerns they expressed about the impact of these rules on their lives and livelihood, we realized that significant changes must be made, while ensuring that the proposed rules remain consistent with our food safety goals."

The FDA said changes would be made for a series of provisions including water-quality standards and testing as well as guidelines for using raw manure and composts. The agency is expected to publish revised rules by the early summer of 2014.

The Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law by President Obama in January 2011 marked the biggest change in U.S. food safety laws since 1938 when Congress gave the FDA authority to oversee the safety of food, drugs and cosmetics. Agriculture groups and GOP lawmakers have since argued the rules proposed to implement the law are too costly and burdensome for farmers who could have to purchase new equipment and complete extra paperwork in order to comply.

The law was designed to place tougher requirements on farmers and food processors to identify food safety risks, monitor them and implement controls to prevent contamination. It was prompted, in part, by several cases of food contamination that sickened millions and lead to a number of high-profile recalls. In June, a federal judge ordered the FDA to complete all final regulations under the law by mid-2015 after the agency was sued by the Center for Food Safety for missing several deadlines.

George Kimbrell, senior attorney for Center for Food Safety, said the group supports "robust" public input in the rulemaking process. "Farmers know better than FDA," he said.

The delay announced by the FDA Thursday was welcomed by farm groups, including smaller operators who have said the proposals were based on outdated science and conflicted with rules governing the production of organic foods.

"We are cautiously optimistic that the approach they announced today . . . will be adequate for the task at hand, namely to lead toward a substantially reworked, clearer, and more practical proposal," said Ferd Hoefner, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents small and medium-sized family farms. "The modernization of food safety rules is a major undertaking and it is more important to get it right than to meet any arbitrary deadlines for completion of the task."

Foodborne illnesses strike an estimated 48 million people in the United States each year, or about one in six Americans, killing 3,000, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A study released in 2010 by consumer and public health groups said foodborne diseases cost the United States $152 billion in health-related expenses each year, far more than prior estimates.

Since 2006, the U.S. food supply has been battered by high-profile contamination outbreaks involving lettuce, peppers, peanuts and spinach. Last year, Salmonella was found at a Sunland Inc. peanut butter processing plant in New Mexico that caused 42 people, mostly children, in 20 states to become ill. The facility had a history of food safety violations. Despite these outbreaks, the United States is widely regarded as having one of the safest food supplies in the world.

Justin Dammann, who raises corn, soybeans and cow calves near Essex, in far southwest Iowa, said he was confident the FDA is making the right decision in going back to revise its plan to overhaul the nation's food safety system. "As long as they keep it simple and just follow science" rather than changing them because of political pressure, said Dammann. "I have full confidence that they made the right decision."

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