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Growers hope administration changes water rule

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YAKIMA, Wash. — Northwest growers should not make any changes to their water quality plans and testing while the Trump administration reviews agricultural water rules adopted by the Obama administration, says Kate Woods, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima.

The Food and Drug Administration is also trying to clarify whether packing houses are farms or processors, Woods said.

The FDA announced Sept. 12 a 60-day review of a proposed rule to extend deadlines for compliance with agricultural water requirements of the Produce Safety Rule of the Food Safety Modernization Act by two to four years while the requirements are reviewed. The Produce Safety Rule was announced by the Obama administration on Nov. 27, 2015.

“The FDA received a lot of feedback from growers, including from the Northwest, that the rule was pretty impractical,” Woods said.

The rule requires increased testing of irrigation water and a particular sampling method few laboratories were equipped to handle, Woods said.

The FDA is proposing to review methodology, amount and standards for sampling, she said. The agency has not said how long its review will take and what changes might be forthcoming, she said.

“We certainly view current requirements in the Produce Safety Rule as unnecessarily burdensome and onerous. We think the number of samples and sample requirement could certainly be made more flexible and practical,” Woods said.

Whether irrigation water can be tested at a single point in a canal or at multiple diversion points will be reviewed as will a requirement that growers establish a microbial water quality profile by conducting 20 tests on each surface water source over two to four years, she said.

NHC and other industry organizations across the country have been meeting with FDA Deputy Commissioner Stephen Ostroff quarterly regarding the water rule and will attend an FDA agricultural water summit early next year, Woods said.

A Jan. 26, 2018, compliance date for the rest of the Produce Safety Rule remains and growers need to have at least one person trained on safety curriculum by then, she said. Growers already adhere to most of the requirements as part of private food safety audits, she said.

Also at issue is whether packing houses that basically do nothing more than clean, grade, sort and pack produce are considered a farm or a processor, Woods said.

“We think if you have a whole apple coming in and a whole apple going out, you should be considered a farm, not a processor,” she said.

Farms fall under the Produce Safety Rule. Processors are under the Preventive Controls for Human Food rule, which requires more risk analyses and planning, Woods said.

The latter rule defines farms partly by ownership structure. NHC believes whether a packing house is a farm or processor should be “based on activities performed, not extraneous issues like ownership structure that have nothing to do with risk,” she said.

“FDA told us in September that they are looking to review the farm definition, think they have a good solution and are aware it needs to be fixed before the Jan. 26 compliance date,” she said.

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