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Food and Drug Administration to Simplify FSMA Water Standard

March 23, 2017


Knox County, KY landowner Burchel Blevins installed this pond near a grove of chestnut trees to serve as a food source for wildlife on his land. Photo credit: USDA

Easily the most confusing aspect of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) new food safety regulations for produce farms are the requirements relating to agricultural water use. Even with the extra time that FDA has given for producers to come into compliance with the new standards, farmers and educators alike continue to struggle with understanding and implementing the complex standard. In recognition of these difficulties, on March 20, 2017, FDA released the following statement regarding its plans to revisit the water standard and find ways to simplify the requirements:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is exploring ways to simplify the microbial quality and testing requirements for agricultural water established by the Food Safety Modernization Act’s (FSMA’s) produce safety rule while still protecting public health.

Agricultural water can be a major conduit of pathogens that can contaminate produce. That is why FSMA’s produce safety rule sets microbial quality standards for agricultural water, including irrigation water that comes into contact with produce.

However, the feedback that the FDA has received is that some of these standards, which include numerical criteria for pre-harvest microbial water quality, may be too complex to understand, translate, and implement. These factors can be important to achieving high rates of compliance.

In response to these concerns, the FDA is considering how it might simplify the water standards. FDA intends to work with stakeholders as these efforts related to the water standards proceed.

It is important that as FDA implements FSMA, the agency strikes an appropriate regulatory balance and decreases regulatory burdens whenever appropriate. FDA remains committed to protecting public health while implementing rules that are workable across the diversity of the food industry.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) applauds the FDA’s willingness to review all aspects of the standard, including: the water quality standard itself, mandated testing frequency, and the approved testing methodology. While FDA’s statement does not provide details on how the review process will be undertaken, or which aspects of the standards might ultimately be revised, it is a promising first step toward a workable standard that can meet public health goals without unduly burdening our nation’s farmers. NSAC looks forward to participating as a stakeholder in the review process, and will continue to provide updates as we learn more.

Meanwhile, farmers that are subject to the produce safety rule should keep in mind that the compliance dates for the water standard are not yet in effect. In fact, FDA’s recent rule clarified that farms collecting water samples to establish a water quality baseline do not have to have all their samples collected by the compliance date; rather, they must start collecting their samples by that date, and can take up to four years to collect the 20 samples required under the current regulation. We encourage you to read our blog post for more information.

It is our hope that FDA’s review of the standard will be thorough but swift, so that changes to the standard and testing frequencies are made before the first farms are expected to be in full compliance with the new standard.  Of course it is also possible that, depending on the changes FDA ultimately proposes to the standard and how long the process takes, the dates for complying with the water standard could be extended even further.


Categories: Food Safety


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