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Food Safety Rules Coming to Produce Farms

Sehvilla Mann

Many fruit and vegetable farms follow strict food safety standards. But the law doesn’t require them to. Right now the government has almost no say in how produce is produced.

That’s set to change, as the nation’s first rules on safer fruit and veggie growing could be approved this fall. The law exempts some very small farms. But the state says it wants to help all interested growers meet the standards.

James Kreitner raises crops from apples to zucchini on a small farm in Scotts. On a sunny Friday morning, he stands near a field where plants in rows poke through a plastic cover. A network of hoses runs underneath – the drip irrigation system Kreitner installed last year.

“It puts it right to the roots on where it’s got to be. You’re not putting water all over the plant, which isn’t bad, but sometimes you’ve got disease issues if they’re wet for long periods of times,” he says.

Kreitner is very happy with drip irrigation.

“There’s a little cost involved but I think it pays back in the long run, so it’s not like it’s really draining the bank for us. The efficiency, it’s like – ‘holy mackerel, why didn’t I do this before’ type of situation. And you know, it’s helped us,” he says.

Irrigation is a big topic in the rules on produce growing the Food and Drug Administration hopes to finalize this fall. The FDA’s mandate to regulate produce comes from a 2011 law, the Food Safety Modernization Act. FSMA is intended to transform the agency’s approach to food safety.

“FDA up till about 2011 and actually even currently, to this day, usually doesn’t activate or get kicked in until there is a problem,” says the Michigan State University Extension’s Phil Tocco.

Tocco says tainted food sickens more than 40 million people a year in the US. He adds that about 40 percent of those cases are caused by produce. The government is good at tracing outbreaks. But by then the damage is done.

“So they’ve moved from that model to a much more preventative model, the idea of looking at, ‘how do we create a system whereby we can ensure that some of the big red flags are taken care of’,” he says.

Tocco says some growers already follow food safety regimens tougher than FSMA’s. But the FDA’s rules would cover lots of ground: from pesticides to transportation to worker hygiene. Tocco says the law encourages attention to detail.

“If a particular tomato, for instance, had bird poop on it, was that also picked? And did that bird-poopy piece of produce get into the food supply? And did it infect other tomatoes along the way?”

Surface waters often host bacteria from animals. Under FSMA, growers that use surface water – and who spray it on plants rather than dripping it underneath – have to test that water frequently. Tocco says that could get expensive. But he says most farms have the option of switching over to well water. Kreitner’s setup – potable well water dripped under the plant – is more or less the ideal.

While FSMA is a federal law, in the states’ view they have a role to play in it. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s Byron Beerbower says the agency wants to get information about the rules out to growers. It’s also created a food safety certificate program with FSMA-like standards.

“A lot of the conservation districts have staff who have been trained who are really excited about this and who really want to do it,” he says.

But Beerbower adds that limited resources mean not every district can offer the program right now. It is available in Kalamazoo. Staff member Linda Zabik says the office has a full schedule helping farms improve their environmental practices. And she doesn’t expect food safety program requests to pour in.

“But if they did we’d try to address it. Maybe we’d have some workshops where we get a lot of people together at a time and go through the assessment and maybe it would be a less one on one type of thing,” she says.

One grower who does want to participate is Kreitner. He says his farm is small enough, he’s not sure he’ll have to comply with FSMA - at least not right away. But he’d like to have the district’s official stamp of approval.

“Those are always nice if you’re up to doing stuff like that. Lets everybody know that you’re playing by the rules,” he says.

Kreitner says he hopes to earn the food safety certificate by the end of the growing season.

Sehvilla Mann joined WMUK’s news team in 2014 as a reporter on the local government and education beats. She covered those topics and more in eight years of reporting for the Station, before becoming news director in 2022.
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