Ag at Large: Tasty gives way to safety in food

California’s food producers are still learning to adjust to the regulations of the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act. (Courtesy of Pixabay)

Fans of government control will be thrilled by one of the federal government’s latest sorties into nourishment – a new emphasis on food safety – as if our food supply were not safe already.

California’s plethora of food producers is learning to deal with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), proposed by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It went into effect at the beginning of this year, and those covered have a couple of years to comply.

Compliance means new and intense visual, mechanical and high-tech vigilance as food products  are grown, nurtured in the field or on the tree or vine, harvested, processed, packed and shipped.  The product is expected to arrive in a sanitary condition, ready for consumption, tasty or not.

As if by divine guidance, an outbreak of E. coli attracted national attention in May involving some of the romaine lettuce produced in Arizona. For many, the outbreak was emphatic confirmation that our domestic food supply is in need of new(modern) scrutiny. Others can point out that the contaminated lot was one of thousands shipped over many years that showed no contamination.           

California’s food producers have not been immune to occasional similar outbreaks, so it is to their credit that they are taking the new act seriously, and gearing up to comply with all of its demands, no matter what the costs, delays or intricacies of compliance. In that process the hefty number of strong, well-managed associations of growers producing hundreds of crops will lead the way.

Western Growers is a good example. It is one of the oldest and largest of grower organizations in the state.  Its members produce a high volume and wide range of crops, mostly vegetables, but fruits and nuts are well represented. The organization has established a new staff position emphasizing FSNA to focus on the act’s new and more stringent requirements, and make sure all members know how to meet them.

Sonia Salas, who has been hired to fill the new staff position, is developing a guide to help members apply provisions of the intensified act, and a checklist they can use to be sure all procedures, personnel and equipment are in compliance. She will develop a series of training sessions, with FDA personnel taking part.

Another association at the forefront of enforcement is the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, based in Sacramento. Its members are especially vulnerable to any contamination of their fresh and inviting products, knowing it can occur long after they have sold and delivered their products.

Recognizing that same possibility, FSMA includes expanded responsibilities for food product handlers at each level between producers and consumers. They are required to apply new and more intense refrigeration, storage and handling and display procedures to assure that consumers receive the safest and freshest commodities that can be delivered.

The California Fresh Fruit Association. is another grower association emphasizing the requirements of the updated FSMA. Because many of its products are displayed in bulk at retail, special precautions must be applied by packing houses and shipping points to maintain purity and freshness. Of course, the new government regulations designate practices and procedures that apply to wrapping and packaging, with shippers and others responsible for enforcing and applying them.

The emphasis on safe citrus products will be channeled through California Citrus Mutual in Exeter. Strong ties with citrus packing houses will be utilized to maintain all new procedures and requirements originated by FDA.

Especially vulnerable under the new plan of action are farmers markets and roadside stands, which fall under a special section of the act. Producers of food products that combine and package several items that are field grown will find requirements for packaging and delivering their products more stringent than ever.

The hope of FDA and certainly growers and producers is that consumers will appreciate a food supply that is safer than it has ever been – and tasty can’t hurt.