NOTE: This text has been updated to reflect changes in the proposed FSMA rules as of October 2014.
Conservation practices play an important role in decreasing food safety risks on the farm. Stream-side vegetation, grassed filter strips, and wetlands help keep our water supply clean by reducing the movement of pathogens, nutrients, and pesticides into streams, rivers, and lakes. Windbreaks and hedgerows reduce the amount of dust and other airborne contaminates blowing onto produce fields. Conservation practices also serve as wildlife habitat. That habitat can support beneficial insects that prey upon pests, raptors that serve as on-farm rodent control, or other species that help to reduce the need for toxic chemicals to control agricultural pests. Despite these benefits, conservation practices – particularly those that encourage wildlife – have been seen as a potential threat to food safety.
After an outbreak of the pathogen E. coli O157 was traced back to a farm on California’s central coast in 2006, the industry responded by setting food safety standards for producers of leafy greens. While the outbreak was not traced to wildlife, these industry standards encouraged producers to remove conservation practices they had implemented on their farms — including those installed with government assistance and encouragement — and build fences or other structures to keep wildlife out of their fields. While there is still only limited scientific understanding of the role that animals play in contaminating produce and causing food safety outbreaks, a few recent outbreaks have identified animals as one of the possible sources of contamination.
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requires the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop regulations aimed at improving the safety of produce. In an effort to balance the beneficial role of conservation practices with the potential risk of wildlife contaminating produce, Congress required FDA to:
Once finalized, the produce regulations will very likely have profound impacts on conservation and the environment. The proposed Produce Rule, however, did not proactively support practices that benefit both conservation and food safety goals. Apart from setting standards for domesticated and wild animals, the proposed produce regulations did not incorporate conservation considerations directly into the regulations (to read more about the standards directed at domesticated and wild animals, read our analysis here.)
The re-proposed Produce Rule took a second try at addressing this issue. The proposed regulations now include a new provision intended to avoid inadvertently promoting or encouraging practices that adversely affect wildlife and animal habitat, including impacts on threatened or endangered species. This new provision would be part of the regulations themselves, and would specifically state that nothing in the Produce Rule requires covered farms to take measures to exclude animals from outdoor growing areas, or to destroy animal habitat, or otherwise clear farm borders around outdoor growing areas or drainages. This is a significant improvement from the original proposal.
In both the proposed rule and the re-proposed sections, FDA acknowledges that it supports and encourages co-management. The concept of “co-management” refers to practices that simultaneously achieve conservation goals and reduce pathogen hazards associated with food production. Co-management means approaches to farm management that respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that promote ecological balance by conserving biodiversity, soil, water, air, energy, and other natural resources, while also reducing pathogen hazards associated with food production. Examples of practices that support conservation and food safety include stream-side vegetation, buffer strips, hedgerows, and cover crops.
Although FDA mentions its support for practices that support food safety, conservation, and environmental protection, FDA does not include a definition of co-management in the proposed rule and overlooks opportunities to build conservation considerations into standards. For example, the proposed Produce Rule outlines standards for training personnel who participate in the growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of produce, but there is no requirement to include co-management principles and practices in that training. One way to strengthen co-management in the produce safety regulations would be to define and include this concept more directly.
Conservation practices are also central to organic production systems, and the National Organic Program (NOP) requires that organic farmers conserve biodiversity and protect soil, water, wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife. Despite the mandate from Congress in FSMA that the produce regulations not conflict with or duplicate NOP requirements, the proposed Produce Rule presented conflicts with organic program regulations in a few places. In the re-proposed rule, FDA has taken an important step forward to ensure that the rules do not conflict with NOP standards (for more information, see the manure and compost page). It is critical that the final regulations reflect this mandate, so that farmers will not turn away from organic production and its associated conservation benefits.
When it first released the proposed Produce Rule, FDA determined that it did not need to conduct an analysis of the environmental impact of the proposed regulations. Since then, and because the proposed regulations will impact conservation and farming practices broadly, and domesticated and wild animals, water quality, and production inputs specifically, FDA has started the process of conducting an environmental impact statement (EIS). For more information about the EIS process, you can read the Federal Register notice here.
If you care about conservation issues, or have conservation practices on your farm, FDA needs to hear from you about how to improve conservation in the produce safety regulations. FDA is requesting comment on what is required and not required by the proposed standards, and on information to include in additional guidance documents. Here are some questions to guide your comments on conservation in the proposed Produce Rule:
Thanks to NSAC member organization Wild Farm Alliance for their assistance in developing this analysis!
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