Foodborne illness linked to contaminated produce is a public health concern. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law in 2011, is the Federal Government’s most recent effort to reduce the risk of microbial contamination that can cause human illness. The law’s “Standards for Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption,” commonly known as the “Produce Rule” (PR), may pose a challenge for farms that grow produce and sell into retail markets.
While the PR is the first Federal regulation focusing on microbial food safety at the farm level, it is not the first effort to improve the safety of produce. Commercial buyers (retailers, foodservice firms, and produce processors) have demanded certain food safety practices from growers for years. Produce growers and grower organizations have also been instrumental in raising food safety standards.
Retailers play an increasingly active role in food safety programs because they are often the final point of contact for consumers before they eat the food, and so consumers may associate the food with the retailer. While the PR does not specifically call for retailers to do anything, retailers have long required growers to have third-party food safety audits, which have helped shape the food safety landscape.
Information on the retail sector is scarce because retailers’ competitiveness and disclosure concerns make them difficult to survey. A new USDA report represents a first look at this part of the produce supply chain. Using information from interviews with nine diverse retailers prior to the 2018 implementation of the PR, it focuses on the role of retailers in the development and implementation of food safety standards for produce. It covers the food safety requirements imposed by retailers on their produce suppliers, how the requirements evolved, if the requirements will change when the PR is implemented, and whether retailers will demand more than the PR requires.