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Romaine Calm: Breaking Down the Produce Safety Rule

April 3, 2019

Subpart E – Agricultural Water: Part 1

By Tucker Diego & Dominique Giroux, VT Agency of Agriculture

“All options are on the table.” This opening remark made by Dr. Stephen Ostroff, Deputy FDA Commissioner for Food & Veterinary Medicine, at the Produce Safety Alliance (PSA) Water Summit stated clearly that the agricultural water standards in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule (PSR) are not set in stone. FDA is now undertaking a review of these standards to reduce the regulatory burden on produce farmers while also ensuring adequate protection of public health (FDA, 2017).

The PSA Water Summit took place on February 27– 28 in Covington, KY, and due to high demand, an additional 28 remote sessions across the country fed into the Summit in real time, including a session organized by University of Vermont Extension in Barre, VT. The Summit centered on Subpart E – Agricultural Water of the FSMA Produce Safety Rule, which sets microbial quality standards for water used in growing, harvesting, packing and holding produce to reduce foodborne illness. However, the frequency of water testing required by the PSR and the complexity of the microbial quality standard has led to much debate and discussion.

The Summit provided produce growers, Extension, university, state, and other produce industry stakeholders a chance to voice agricultural water challenges, current practices, and research needs, and to provide collective feedback to the FDA on current requirements outlined in the PSR water standard. While FDA has not made a final decision on how it will address concerns with the PSR water standard, participants jointly agreed that states and Extension offices around the nation can further develop agricultural water research, provide technical assistance to growers, and strengthen regional collaboration around understanding the rule and meeting the requirements. For now, FDA recommends that growers continue with their current water testing practices until the review of Subpart E is finalized.

Produce growers covered under the FSMA PSR should bear in mind that the re-evaluation of the agricultural water requirements does not affect the industry’s need for adherence to tiered compliance dates (Figure 1.1) for all other subparts of the rule. While the PSR water standard is under review, growers should continue current water testing practices and should follow the basic practices listed below to help manage risks associated with agricultural water.

Know Your Water

Assess the types of water sources used on your farm. Do you have municipal, ground, or surface water sources? If you use surface water, are there seasonal changes that affect its microbial water quality (e.g. snowmelt, migration of wildlife, upstream discharges)? What is each water source used for (e.g. irrigation, handwashing, ice making, or post-harvest washing)? The answers to these questions can help assess the potential risk associated with each water source.

Assess Water Systems

Review your water sources at the beginning of the growing season and at least once annually to identify any conditions that could introduce hazards or cause contamination. Inspect wellheads, pumps, and water distribution systems on a routine basis to ensure they are properly maintained. Correct any deficiencies you find, for example by making repairs to a well cap, well casing, sanitary seals, piping tanks, or cross-connections. Consider installing a back-flow prevention device on a well that does not already have one. These recommendations align with the current Subpart E – Agricultural Water requirements in 112.42 that are unlikely to change because of FDA’s review of the PSR water standards.

Maintain Mitigation Strategies

Develop an action plan for how to manage your water sources from becoming contaminated. For example, if an irrigation pond used for overhead irrigation on leafy greens is susceptible to contamination from wildlife intrusion (e.g. migratory birds or grazing animals), consider mitigation strategies to ensure that water does not contaminate produce.

Test Your Water

It is highly recommended that water sources used for handwashing, cleaning food contact surfaces, washing produce and making ice, are tested on an annual basis to ensure there is zero detectable generic E. coli per 100mL. While generic E. coli itself is unlikely to cause foodborne illness, it is an indicator of fecal contamination. Consequently, untreated surface water should not be used for handwashing, cleaning food contact surfaces, washing produce and making ice. These recommendations align with the current Subpart E – Agricultural Water requirements in 112.44(a)(1-4) that are unlikely to change because of FDA’s review of the PSR water standards.

Contact UVM Extension, the Agency of Agriculture, or another agricultural water specialist if you have concerns about the microbial water quality of a water source on your farm. If you think you might have a problem, please seek assistance from these produce program resources.

Agricultural water is one of the most challenging areas of produce safety due to the highly variable nature of water in on-farm conditions. We are determined to support farmers navigate these difficult issues and will provide periodic updates on the progress of FDA’s review of Subpart E’s Agricultural Water requirements over the coming months. To ensure you receive updates related to the Produce Safety Rule enroll in the Vermont Produce Portal.

For additional agricultural water resources, please visit our Produce Safety Resources page.

Email or call (802) 828-2423 to connect with the Produce Program team.

On-Farm Readiness Reviews

An On-Farm Readiness Review (OFRR) is a free, voluntary, non-regulatory assessment of a farm’s produce safety readiness prior to inspection under the Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule. A Produce Safety Rule expert will evaluate pre-harvest, harvest, and post-harvest processes, assess what growers are doing well, and identify areas for improvement in food safety practices. OFRRs will be conducted jointly by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and University of Vermont Extension beginning Summer 2018.

Learn more about On -Farm Readiness Reviews. Growers interested in scheduling and OFRR should check the box when enrolling in the Produce Portal.

Contact: Email or call (802) 461-5128.