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local farmers say they already comply with FDA proposals

US (CA): "Greenhouse industry already in compliance with food safety act requirements"

Casey Houweling, president and CEO of Houweling Nurseries Inc. in Camarillo, said he expects his business mostly complies with the new rules because it adopted the standards developed by Certified Greenhouse Farmers. New food safety rules aiming to overhaul the nation's food supply chain are not scaring Ventura County's larger growers.

Rather, many say they are already following the regulations and are actually in favor of them.

Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration debuted two of five rules proposed under the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law two years ago. The administration bills the act as "the most sweeping reform of FDA's food safety authority in more than 70 years."

Through the new regulations, the FDA aims to prevent, rather than just respond to, foodborne illnesses. One in six Americans suffers from food-related pathogens, the FDA says, and the law "recognizes the need for a global approach to food safety."

The new regulations take up nearly 1,000 pages, experts say, and are largely based on guidelines that agriculture producers have already voluntarily adapted.

"Many companies are already essentially compliant and doing more than the expectations in the proposed rule," said Trevor Suslow, an extension research specialist with UC Davis who specializes in microbial food safety of fruits and vegetables for the fresh-cut industry. "The whole thing is moving from guidance in produce food safety to regulations in produce food safety."

The first rule newly regulates how produce is grown, harvested, held and packed, while the second requires certain food safety practices for food processors and similar businesses.

"Maybe these are new for the FDA but they are certainly not new for the agriculture industry," said Chris Summers, global food safety and compliance manager for Mission Produce Inc. in Oxnard, one of the world's largest avocado distributors, which contracts out growers in Ventura County and five other counties.

"We've been doing this for seven years," Summers said. "It may affect some of the real small companies and small growers, but big players in the industry have been doing this for ages."

Small growers with revenues averaging less than $500,000 a year for the past three years are exempt from most requirements. Even smaller growers with average annual sales for the past three years of $25,000 or less are also excluded. However, the FDA says it will revoke those exemptions under certain conditions.

Additionally, businesses have different timelines based on yearly sales to adopt the new regulations once made official after public comment periods.

Growers, packers and trade associations are still reviewing the details within the massive documents. They require such things as timely testing water used in the agriculture operations and regulate the type, application methods and timing, handling and storage of manure used for composting. Harvesters are required to practice personal hygiene. Growers must ensure animals and their droppings don't touch fresh produce, and produce equipment must be washed and sanitized according to new standards.

The new guidelines appear to already closely match the requirements growers and packers have been complying with, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Good Agricultural Practices, known as GAP. Those requirements mandate a stringent audit process by third-party auditors, say growers and experts.

"Most of our growers are USDA GAP certified," said Lee Cole, CEO and president of avocado grower Calavo Growers Inc. in Santa Paula. "We already have a food safety person who is helping growers get certified. All our packinghouses are certified by third-party auditors because customers were demanding this."

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Source: / Photo: Juan Carlo/VCStar

Publication date: 1/31/2013



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