SANDUSKY, Ohio — A call for stricter standards on raw produce has spurred interest among growers across the Buckeye State, as they consider whether standards will help or hinder their farm operations.
On Jan. 19, the second day of the Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association annual congress, a representative of Food and Drug Administration explained the process of forming new produce regulations for the nation.
Samir Assar, director of produce safety for FDA, said President Barack Obama and the White House have appointed food safety efforts to ensure “laws are being adequately enforced and to keep the American public safe.”
In October, the USDA joined forces with FDA to promote food safety regulations for produce.
“President Obama, like most Americans, wants immediate improvements in our food safety system,” said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in a released statement. “As such, we are pulling together all our best resources — state and federal — to improve the safety of our foods and to work with growers (to) protect and promote the health of our nation.”
Growers from Ohio want to make sure their own interests are considered, which include a mix of small and large operations, and growers who farm with horse-powered equipment that enters the fields, especially in the Amish and Plain communities.
Plans like California’s Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement — a food safety program approved in 2007, have been proposed to USDA. But in recent months, Ohio growers have voiced concern over the geographical differences of the two states, the cultures and the kinds of crops grown.
Assar said national regulations are still being decided, with no definite plan at this point. Growers are asked to communicate their situations and interests to FDA, in the form of public comments.
“We’re looking at those comments, we’re evaluating them, and any relevant comments will be considered,” he said.
Several produce “guidances” already exist and can be accessed at the FDA’s Web site, however, the push now is for new legislation, which will establish national food safety standards for produce.
But several growers at the congress said it could be a daunting task, given the many different levels of producers in the country, let alone Ohio.
Fred Finney, a grower from Ohio’s Wayne County and a founding member of the popular Mount Hope Produce Auction, in Ohio’s Holmes County, said Amish and Plain communities rely on horses for field operations, and that needs to be remembered.
Assar said, “anything we do moving forward will be scale appropriate. … We understand the diversity of the industry and the complexities that exist.”
Finney also questioned recent legislation to provide traceability of produce, which some supporters want for each piece of produce, from field to consumer.
He said traceability can mean “insanity” for some producers, depending on how specific and how far in the market chain they are required to trace their goods.
One grower who works mostly in the produce greenhouse industry, said she’s seen the industry leave the United States over regulatory issues, for countries like Brazil, Canada and Costa Rica. She asked whether an economic study has been done, on how additional regulations could impact the produce industry.
Some growers said they already are spending thousands, and tens of thousands of dollars in third-party audits, and are frustrated at the threat of more costs, for more regulations.
Although diverse, Ohio’s produce industry does share common goals, said Bob Jones, a grower from The Chef’s Garden in Ohio’s Huron County. Jones is past president of OPGMA, and moderated the discussion.
“We all really want the same thing,” he said. “We all want to be able to make our living in the produce industry, and we also want to do it safely.”
On Wednesday, growers discussed the Ohio Fresh Produce Marketing Agreement, a three-tier approach, with each level of producer in mind. Jones said the Ohio plan is progressing well and gaining FDA’s interest.
Rules are coming
FDA has announced its intention to publish a proposed rule for produce safety by October. Meanwhile public listening sessions continue to be held, with a half-dozen already held in Ohio, and one planned for March 11 in Columbus, Ohio, at the Blackwell Inn.
This public meeting will feature a discussing among food safety experts and producers, and is jointly sponsored by Georgetown University’s Produce Safety Project, and The Ohio State University’s Food Animal Health Research Project.
(Reporter Chris Kick can be reached at 330-403-9477, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)