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FDA to Reassess Food Safety Rules

Washington — The Food and Drug Administration says it will revise sweeping new food safety rules proposed earlier this year after farmers complained the rules could hurt business.

Michael Taylor, FDA’s commissioner for foods, said the agency wants to make sure the rules are practical for farmers who have to abide by them. The rules proposed in January 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 precautions. 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.

Taylor said the agency’s thinking has evolved after talking to farmers.

“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,” Taylor said in a blog post on the FDA website.

Upper Valley farmers say they are relieved that the FDA is taking more time before implementing the rules, but the action being taken this week is a small, if not insignificant, victory.

“All they’ve really done is extend the comment period, and there’s little comfort in just making more comments,” said Pooh Sprague, who runs Edgewater Farm in Plainfield and is the president of the New Hampshire Vegetable and Berry Growers Association.

“The problem with this is they put these new rules out there, and nobody has time to take them apart and see how they are going to affect us. We’re all very busy. It’s either spend time on your computer and cellphone or get your raspberries pruned.

“So it’s good to have more time, and we’re encouraging everybody to make intelligent comments if they haven’t or to go back and revise the comments they made before,” Sprague said.

“This is a big thing that is going to affect more than just farmers. It’s going to affect everyone — the farm-to-school programs, Willing Hands (a nonprofit that collects surplus produce from stores and distributes it to the poor) and a lot of other organizations. It’s just bad science that needs to be corrected,” he said.

“There are a lot of gray areas in the rules that may not have affected us, but we don’t know for sure,” said Suzanne Long, who owns and operates Luna Bleu Farm in Royalton with her husband, Tim Sanford.

Farming in New England is different than farming in other parts of the country, and the proposed rules could be very restrictive on how farmers here fertilize fields, plant and harvest, and market their goods, Long said.

“It’s good that they have delayed implementing the rules, and it would be really good if they rewrite some of the proposals,” she said.

The rules would mark the first time the FDA would have real authority to regulate food on farms, and the FDA 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, and the House version of a five-year farm bill would delay some of the law. Some Democrats advocating for organic farmers have also been critical, saying small farms can’t afford the new standards.

Many of the concerns the FDA heard from farmers were about new regulations for testing irrigation water, Taylor said. Organic farmers have also been wary of standards for using raw manure and compost.

Supporters have said the new laws are needed after several high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks in peanuts, spinach, eggs, cantaloupe and other foods. While many farmers and food manufacturers already follow good food safety practices, the law would aim to ensure that all of them do. There are an estimated 3,000 deaths a year from foodborne illness.

The rules 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 canned and cooked, 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 food facilities. The law also required stricter standards on imported foods.

Revising the rule will cause more delays in what has already been a lengthy process. Taylor said the new proposed rules are expected by next summer, with a deadline for final rules in June 2015. The FDA is legally required to finalize the rules by that date after they were sued by an advocacy group last year for missing deadlines included in the original 2010 law.

Taylor said the agency was not trying to scale back the rules, but make them more workable.

“We’re not rolling back on our food safety purpose. We’re trying to find the right way to get there,” he said.

“We have heard concerns that certain provisions, as proposed, would not fully achieve our goal of implementing the law in a way that improves public health protections while minimizing undue burden on farmers and other food producers,” Taylor said in his post on agency’s blog. “And 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 proposed regulations have been criticized by proponents of local, organic and sustainable farming as being too invasive and unnatural. The rules call for stringent barriers to fence wildlife away from farms and scrutinized natural manure, which is favored by organic growers.

“In our efforts to get first-hand information about how these rules would work in the real world, we visited nearly 20 states, Europe and Mexico; toured small and large farms and met with farmers across the country; met with the Amish, organic producers and other groups deeply involved in farming; collaborated with officials from other federal and state public health agencies; and held many public meetings,” Taylor said. “We also met with coalitions of consumer groups and other stakeholders. Our outreach work has been focused on ensuring that we never took our eyes off the ultimate goal: Keeping the food that you and your family eat safe.”

Caroline Smith DeWaal, a longtime food safety advocate with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the law will force the FDA to ensure that food is safer.

“While FDA can make the proposed rules more practical for farmers, under the law the agency can’t sacrifice consumers’ safety,” she said.

V alley News staff writer Warren Johnston and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.