Published in the January 2014 Issue Published online: Jan 17, 2014 John Keeling, NPC Exec VP and CEO
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Since the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law in January 2011, the ag world has been bracing for a flood of new FDA rules governing the way agricultural products are produced, shipped and sold. Earlier this year, FDA unveiled two sets of proposals, Standards for Growing, Harvesting, Packing and Holding Produce for Human Consumption (commonly referred to as the Produce Rule) and Current Good Manufacturing Practice and Hazard Analysis and Risk Based Preventive Controls for Human Food (or the Preventive Controls Rule), that would affect the U.S. potato supply chain.

In November, the National Potato Council took the opportunity to urge FDA to revise the rules to better reflect the real-world experience of how potatoes are grown, shipped, and consumed, while ensuring the regulations meet the goal of providing consumers access to healthy, safe produce.

Potatoes: A Low-Risk Commodity

As part of the proposed Produce Rule, which would regulate how fruits and vegetables are grown on farms, FDA classified potatoes as “low risk,” making them an unregulated commodity under the rule. As the basis for this classification, FDA considered the strong food safety track record of the U.S. potato industry and recognized that cooking potatoes serves as a kill-step for food-borne pathogens that might be present on raw potatoes.

While NPC welcomed the low-risk classification for the on-farm handling and packing of potatoes, it took exception to FDA’s proposal to regulate potatoes when they move to a shared packing shed, triggering a more stringent set of regulations as part of the Preventative Controls Rule.

In its public comments, NPC argued that “a low-risk raw agricultural commodity should retain its low-risk classification until it is transformed into a higher-risk commodity through processing or some other activity that increases its food safety risk.” The theory is that just because a low-risk commodity from a single farm is relocated and comingled with a low-risk commodity from their neighbors’ farms does not increase the risk profile of that commodity. In other words, potatoes are potatoes, on the farm or in a jointly-used packing shed.

Irrigation Water Testing Requirements

The Council also took issue with the treatment of irrigation water as part of the Produce Rule. Under the proposal, USDA uses a one-size-fits-all approach to water testing for crops, treating irrigation water used to grow produce rarely consumed raw the same as ready-to-eat crops. In its comments, NPC emphasized that FDA’s food safety rules should recognize that the risks and appropriate standards for irrigation water differ significantly across different fruits and vegetables, and that commodity-specific standards for agricultural water should reflect the risk associated with individual crops, ensure consumer safety, and provide appropriate flexibility to producers.

New Potato Food Safety Guidelines

Finally, NPC comments argued that for commodities considered low-risk, such as potatoes, industry-initiated voluntary guidelines should take the place of government oversight. NPC noted that its recently released risk assessment guide provides valuable guidance to companies that produce, harvest, store, pack, and transport potatoes.

The U.S. potato industry is proud of its strong track record of providing domestic and international consumers a safe, nutritious product through the adoption of good agricultural practices and good manufacturing practices as part of normal production operations. Notwithstanding this record, a set of guidelines developed by the potato industry reinforces food safety practices already in place on farms and in packing sheds.

For more information about NPC’s FSMA comments or to download the new food safety guidance document, visit www.nationalpotatocouncil.org