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Proposed FDA rules for produce farms to be changed

The Food and Drug Administration is, for the first time, proposing new food safety rules for produce farmers across the country. The FDA asked for comments on the rules this year and thousands of upstate farmers responded. Many of them criticized the rules, saying they could spoil their livelihood. So the FDA announced last week they would re-draft some of the contentious rules.

Richard Ball runs Scoharie Farms on Route 30 outside of Albany. He walks over to a metal gate closing in one of his fields and yanks up the hood on his coat, blocking the wind.

“Way over there by the carrot harvester, where we were just digging parsnips, until this froze solid on us, is a field of popcorn, which is still standing, which we’ll pick this winter,” said Ball.

The fields are mostly dried up, blanketed in day-old snow. Ball has farmed here for 20 years, but says he’s afraid new regulations from the Food and Drug Administration will make it a lot harder.

“We’re at the worry part because we don’t know exactly what we’re dealing with here,” said Ball.

Back in 2010, Congress passed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, or FSMA, amidst a storm of headlines of people sickened by food borne illnesses.

Michael Arcuri represented New York’s 24th Congressional District at the time and co-sponsored the bill. He says its intent was to expand the FDA’s ability to recall problem foods.

“It was a bill that allowed the FDA to take a more proactive and less reactive position,” said Arcuri.

The FDA was also given the authority to set new rules for each step of produce farming – from growing to harvesting to packing.

The new rules apply to 40 percent of farms nationwide, depending on the farm’s size and reach. Many farmers say the proposed rules are too strict.

Richard Ball says he is already testing the water from the creek that irrigates his fields each month. Under the proposed rules, the water would have to meet stricter standards, similar to ones used for public swimming pools. Ball says that’s excessive and has nothing to do with food safety. Plus, the new rules require water-testing every week.

“I’m sure I’m looking at a $10,000 bill,” said Ball. “The first year anyway. I can see that without thinking about it.”

Michael Taylor, of the FDA, says concerns raised by farmers have led the agency to make some changes to the rules.

“The water testing does bring some cost. We’ve heard a lot of that and we’ll look to minimize those in every practical way we can, so this is an ongoing process,” said Taylor.

Besides water testing, other rules involve more detailed record keeping and stricter personal hygiene standards for workers.

Kelly Young, with the New York Farm Bureau, says these new rules could force farmers to hire full-time staff.

“We think they’re underestimating the cost. Our farmers are working on really small margins. They’re not always making a lot of money. A farmer is a price-taker, not a price-setter,” said Young.

So they would have to absorb the added cost, instead of passing it on to the consumer, says Young.

These regulations would be the FDA’s first regulation of fresh produce. Because of that, the Farm Bureau’s Kelly Young is concerned the FDA doesn’t have the right experience.

“They are used to regulating places where we process food. But what a factory looks like and what a farm looks like, they’re two very different things,” said Young.

She thinks rule-setting for produce makes more sense under the purview of the US Department of Agriculture.

Last week, the FDA announced they will revise some of the proposed rules by June of next year. After that, the rules will be up for comment again.