By Sean Ellis, Capital Press
The public comment period for the FDA's proposed produce safety rules ended Nov. 22, but agency officials have agreed to provide additional opportunity for farmers to offer input before the rules are finalized.
However, it's not clear yet whether that means a formal second comment period, according to Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who met with top FDA officials Nov. 13 in Washington, D.C.
After visiting Pacific Northwest farms in August to speak directly with producers who are concerned about the proposed rules, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Mike Taylor said the rules would be altered.
A growing list of groups and farmers are asking for a second comment period before the rules are finalized.
"They said there would be an opportunity for people to see the proposed final rule and there would be time for them to weigh in on it," Walden said. "But they stopped short of saying there would be a formal second comment period."
Shelly Burgess, FDA team leader for food, said the agency would do "whatever is needed to get these rules right."
United Fresh Produce Association, which serves companies throughout the fresh produce supply chain, submitted 100 pages of comments on the proposed rules, including a request for a second comment period.
United's comments are intended to give FDA officials the best real-world information about industry practices and how the rules can enhance public safety without adding unnecessary burdens that could drive producers and distributors out of business, said David Gombas, the group's senior vice president of food safety.
"We want to ensure FDA-established food safety provisions that reflect (the Food Safety and Modernization Act's) risk-based, scientific approach, recognizing the diversity of fruit and vegetable production," Gombas said.
Walden was encouraged by the meeting with FDA officials.
"They said they're not looking to issue a one-size-fits all rule. To me, that's encouraging," he said. "I felt like they better understood the impact the draft rule would have on American farmers."
Walden and Hastings said they have heard from numerous farmers who are concerned about the rules, which include a weekly water testing requirement that would limit how much bacteria can be detected in irrigation water.
Onion growers and other farmers in the region say the surface water they use for irrigation can't meet the bacteria requirements.
FDA's proposed rules are unworkable in areas like central Washington that rely on open ditch irrigation, Hastings said.
"It only makes sense that the FDA take into account the different ways produce, including apples, pears and cherries, is grown and harvested," he said. "I am pleased that . Taylor pledged to provide growers another opportunity to provide input before any final rule is implemented."