Washington Insider -- Tuesday

More Food Safety Inspections Coming

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

FSA Data Shows Prevent Plant Acres at 19 Million

Farmers were not able to plant crops on more than 19.4 million acres in 2019, according to certified acreage data released by the Farm Service Agency (FSA).

Not surprisingly, more than 73 percent of the prevented plant acres were in 12 Midwestern states, where heavy rainfall and flooding this year has prevented many producers from planting mostly corn, soybeans and wheat.

“Agricultural producers across the country are facing significant challenges and tough decisions on their farms and ranches,” USDA Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Bill Northey said. “We know these are challenging times for farmers, and we have worked to improve flexibility of our programs to assist producers prevented from planting.”

The data is also utilized by the National Ag Statistics Service (NASS) in putting their Crop Production report together, relative to acreage. While NASS said in issuing their Crop Production report Monday, the data was not likely complete. “It is also important to note that data are reported to FSA over an extended period of time, with varying due dates across the country, and is historically incomplete in early August,” NASS said. “NASS has carefully analyzed these data for many years and has determined they normally don’t become nearly complete until September for cotton and October for corn, soybeans, and sorghum.”

USDA, AFGE reach agreement on workers to be moved to Kansas City

Employees of the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) who agree to move to Kansas City will be allowed to telework until December 30 and will receive incentive payments of one month’s salary, according to an agreement reached between the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and USDA.

The agreement also gives the employees until September 27 to decide whether to move.

The agreement "is certainly a positive development that could encourage more employees to relocate, but it does not make up for all the anxiety and anguish that employees have been going through since this relocation was first announced,” AFGE President J. David Cox said of the accord reached with USDA.

Washington Insider: More Food Safety Inspections Coming

Food Safety News reported recently that not only have FDA officials called for increased plant inspections, “they’re on the way,” and that there have been “plenty of warnings” under the relatively new Food Safety Modernization Act. These include new “calls for inspectors to visit produce farms and packing houses.” under the act’s rules.

In addition, there have been additional reports of food illness outbreaks this year that have increased political pressure on FDA to enforce its new authorities.

As a result, plant inspections are to begin this month for farms and orchards making more than $500,000 in annual gross product sales. Smaller farms have another year to comply with the rule.

As for packing houses, even though there have been some questions over whether a packing house is a farm or not, the FDA is focusing more on what happens in the plant than who owns it. In any case, the FDA wants all packing companies to follow the packing and holding requirements of the Produce Safety Rule or the good manufacturing practices portion of the Preventive Controls for Human Food Rule.

And while farms will, for the most part, be inspected during harvest, packing line inspections may happen any time that they are running, FSN says.

“We won’t come down like a ton of bricks right out of the gate,” Hector Castro, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Agriculture said. “The goal is to help farms comply with the Produce Safety Rule to ensure that food is safe—not to hand out fines and penalties.”

Still, that won’t mean that farms and packing sheds that pose an immediate danger to public health won’t face penalties. After all, these inspections are aimed at preventing conditions that could lead to foodborne diseases, FSN says. “That’s what the Food Safety Modernization Act is all about: preventing health problems, not just reacting to them, as was the case before the act was signed into law.”

Whereas in most states, agriculture departments will be conducting the inspections, six states — Oregon, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois — will turn to FDA.

That agency says that the Produce Safety Rule establishes mandatory science-based, minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption and notes that the standards are designed to work effectively for food safety across the wide diversity of produce operations.

And, FDA concludes that clarifying and unifying the standards operations covered by the rule will need to meet will help make the nation’s food supply safer by reducing the presence of dangerous bacteria--and thus reduce the number of illnesses caused by contaminated produce.

The Centers for Disease Control estimate that each year 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.

In its approach, FDA says higher-risk farms will obviously be higher on the priority list than lower risk operations. The agency will rely on known food-safety risks, defined by an internal analysis prepared last winter by the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture’s Food Safety Modernization Technical Working group.

These include a number of known food-safety factors, including the farm’s history of class 1 recalls and outbreaks, the soil treatments used, its compliance history, the end users of the produce and other conditions.

The growing season also figures into where a farm falls on the inspection priority list, as well as other factors.

As part of its guiding principle, the food safety inspectors will use the new “On-Farm Readiness Review.” This program guide is offered free to farms and is designed to foster a dialogue between the producer and the regulator and/or educator about what it takes to comply with Produce Safety Rule.

Each visit is scheduled at the farmer’s convenience and generally takes only a modest amount of time. At the end of the review, the assessor gives the farmer his or her top three suggestions for the farm to improve its food-safety practices.

Produce that is usually eaten raw is covered under the Produce Safety Rule, which includes berries, tomatoes, almonds, lettuces, and melons among others, FSN says.

However, since cooking produce before it is eaten can reduce the risk of serious adverse health consequences or death, FDA has decided that it is not “reasonably necessary” to subject produce that is “rarely consumed raw” to the requirements under the Produce Safety Rule.

So, we will see. Fresh food production rules are both difficult and hard to follow in many cases, and have historically been unpopular with producers because they can intrude on critical, time sensitive production operations. Nevertheless, political pressure to upgrade consumer confidence in the safety of increasingly popular food for raw consumption has intensified sharply in recent years. The expanded safety inspections should be supported and followed closely by producers as they are rolled out, Washington Insider believes.

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