Greenhouse and controlled environment agriculture growers who are participating in USDA’s GAP program are expected to have an easier time meeting Food Safety Modernization Act rules.
The burden of proving a grower is exempt from the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act’s rule falls squarely on the shoulders of the growers. Phil Tocco, food safety educator at Michigan State University Extension, said there are growers who will be exempt from meeting the Act’s rules.
“There are qualifications for actually being covered by this rule,” Tocco said. “If growers are selling less than $25,000 a year gross, they do not have to comply with most of the production safety rules. Growers who are grossing more than $25,000 in produce sales, but less than $500,000 in produce sales, will have a staggered compliance.
“If a grower grossing less than $500,000 is selling more than half of what he is growing to local buyers or direct to consumers or within 275 miles of where the produce is grown, then the grower is in a category called qualified exempt. This means the grower theoretically doesn’t have to comply with the preponderance of the rule. If a grower is exempt, he has to prove that he is exempt. That burden of proof begins 60 days after the rule was published. So unlike all of the other segments of FSMA, if a grower is exempt, he needs to start to prove that he is exempt by Jan. 26, 2016.”
Sales data collection
Part of the FSMA rule is the collection and maintaining of sales receipts.
“Growers need to have sales receipts for the last three years,” Tocco said. “They don’t need to be signed or initialed by the growers, but they need to be present in one place so if someone from FDA appears on the farm, a grower can produce these documents to show that the grower is qualified exempt. If the claiming qualified exemption is based on local produce, the grower needs to be able to prove who the produce was sold to in relationship to where the grower is located and the customer is within 275 miles.”
Tocco said growers who are exempt from FSMA need to maintain a qualification check sheet. “FDA is asking for a check sheet which is along the lines of a self-assessment,” he said. “The check sheet indicates a grower meets the qualifications to be exempt and then he signs off on that sheet indicating all of his sales receipts and this is his gross income. This does not need to be filed with the government, but simply kept on site, in the event of an inspection.
Tocco said growers who sell at farmers markets will have to keep reasonably good records of what they sell.
“The nice thing about a farmers market is a grower knows how much produce he took to the market and how much he came home with,” he said. “So as long as there is one entry per market day it should be easy for the growers to track their sales. FDA is not asking for receipts for every sale at a farmers market. If a grower is selling to retailers or to restaurants, the FDA wants invoices.
“The only other stipulation from the standpoint of being exempt is the $25,000 or less in sales.
Not only does a grower have to have some proof that he sold $25,000 or less of produce averaged over three years, but at a farmers market or any other place where a grower is selling his produce, within three years he needs to have some notification with his name and address. At a farmers market a grower has to have his name and business address posted so that anybody buying from him can see this information at the market stall. Or the grower has to have some kind of sticker or label on the produce he’s selling.”
Aligning USDA GAP and FMSA standards
Tocco said an increasing number retailers are requiring that the growers they purchase produce from be GAP certified.
“Many retailers, even the small ones, are requiring anyone that they buy from, big or small grower, must be GAP certified,” he said. “GAP is an order of magnitude above and beyond what FSMA is requiring in all but the water testing. I expect that FDA is going to be working with USDA so that the water assessment for both groups is the same. FDA wants the GAP audit to match its rules.
“FDA has written in the rule that it is already working with USDA officials to bring its GAP standards in line with FSMA. So likely in the next couple of years the water quality standards that have been proposed by FSMA will mirror those in the USDA GAP audit. Or the USDA GAP audit will adopt FSMA standards. For the next four years the audit a grower is having done by USDA, if a grower passes an USDA GAP audit he will meet FSMA requirements.”
Tocco said growers who sell produce to elementary and middle schools through the USDA Farm to School Program have to be USDA GAP certified. This applies nationally.
“University of Michigan in Ann Arbor buys produce from local growers,” he said. “It’s not a lot in the way of sales, well under the FSMA threshold for these growers. For the last five years the university has required that any grower it purchases produce from must be GAP certified.”
Tocco said he doesn’t expect the growers who are already GAP certified and selling to retailers and schools will have any problems meeting FSMA rules.
“The growers who will have problems with FSMA are the ones selling their produce at farmers markets or from roadside stands,” he said. “Considering the number of farmers markets and roadside stands that are operating nationwide, there is no requirement for growers who sell their produce through these markets to meet FSMA rules. If they are selling enough produce they will be required to meet FSMA rules.”
Reducing the risk of contaminated food
Tocco said what is driving the increase in food safety rules is the mounting liability and litigation as a result of the disease outbreaks from contaminated food.
“When you have a system that is inherently “buggy” there is no possible way to control all of the pathogens,” he said. “If a grower is growing fresh produce and a raw agricultural commodity is purchased and eaten, there is no way the grower can guarantee that the consumer is not going to get sick. That is the challenge. Unfortunately the risk can’t be completely eliminated.”
For more: Phil Tocco, Michigan State University Extension; (517) 788-4292, Ext. 6;
David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas; firstname.lastname@example.org.