Rules governing food safety and handling on the farm level will be revised and delayed until early next summer, a Food and Drug Administration official said Thursday.
In question are the Produce Rule and Preventive Controls Rule, both part of the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act. They include a sweeping set of reforms that would have a significant impact on farmers' management of produce and compliance to new food safety regulations.
"Based on our discussions with farmers, the research community and other input we have received, we have learned a great deal, and our thinking has evolved," FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine Michael Taylor explained in an FDA statement.
"Everyone shares the goal of ensuring produce safety, but, as we said at the beginning of the process, the new safety standards must be flexible enough to accommodate reasonably the great diversity of the produce sector, and they must be practical to implement," he said.
As Taylor addressed, farm and produce groups at the front of the debate supported attention to advanced food safety, but said the rules were too restrictive, instituting new requirements that conflict with existing conservation and environmental standards.
Groups also pointed to the "unintended consequences" that could result from FSMA regulations as proposed, including regulations that did not respect the varying production practices that farmers use to raise a variety of crops.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition took significant concern with FDA's economic costs of implementation and how federal and state agencies would work together to implement the new regulations.
Even though most of the discussion centered on the fundamentals of the rules, that wasn't the only issue at hand. The FDA has previously caught attention for its handling of the rules' draft language release and comment periods.
When the FSMA was signed into law in 2011, the FDA was given 18 months to implement the new regulations. However, it was more than two years until draft rules were released.
The Center for Food Safety took issue with FDA's timelines and later earned a court order, under which the agency was required to set specific deadlines for proposed rules and a final rule.
To make matters worse, the comment period was extended a total of three times. One extension was due to a technology glitch in which servers handling online comments from food safety stakeholders failed, triggering the FDA to allow an additional week for comment submission.
The NSAC, however, says it is "cautiously optimistic" that the latest change and comment period to come will finally be adequate for a "substantially reworked, clearer, and more practical proposal."
"The modernization of food safety rules is a major undertaking and it is more important to get it right than to meet any arbitrary deadlines for completion of the task," Ferd Hoefner, NSAC policy director said.
The FSMA also includes other sections – like the animal feed rule, for instance – which will not be affected in the revisions, Taylor said.
The FDA's decision comes less than a month after a group of 75 Congress members called on the agency to revise the rules and re-propose them, citing concerns similar to those raised by farm groups.