The changes would require farms to conduct comprehensive assessments that would help identify and mitigate hazards in water used to grow produce.
“There have been far too many foodborne illness outbreaks possibly linked to pre-harvest agricultural water in recent years, including water coming from lands nearby produce farms,” said Frank Yiannas, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, in a statement. “If finalized, we’re confident this proposal would result in fewer outbreaks in the U.S. related to produce, protecting public health and saving lives.”
Elizabeth A. Bihn, PhD, director of the Produce Safety Alliance, notes that the proposed rule will primarily impact Subpart E of the rule, as this section relates to water used prior to harvest in the production of covered produce on covered farms. “Growers should prepare by evaluating the water used during produce production prior to harvest,” she tells Food Quality & Safety. “This may include assessing upstream and adjacent land activities that can influence the quality of their surface water sources. It may also include testing their surface water sources for quantified generic E. coli prior to use and throughout the season and inspecting their wells to ensure there are no structural issues.”
As written in the FDA proposal, these changes task individual growers with assessing the risks in their farms’ water sources and distribution systems.
Dr. Bihn says there are some parts of the proposed rule that she feels ask growers to understand nuances that many researchers are still figuring out. “It is extremely important that fresh produce growers understand microbial risks, water quality, and how water can carry and distribute microbial contamination to the crops they grow,” she says. “The requirement for agricultural water assessment could help move them in the right direction, recognizing growers will need resources to help them understand relevant research and how to apply it as a guide in their decision-making assessment of risks.”
The LGMA Food Safety Programs in Arizona and California have conducted a review of the proposal and determined that the LGMA requirements appear to meet and exceed what is being proposed. “What is notable is that the FDA has moved away from requiring the multitude of indicator organism testing, required under the original proposed water rule, for a risk assessment modeled after hazards that are proximate to the water,” says Greg Komar, LGMA’s technical director. “Water testing might be used to assist with the assessment but is not required.”
The comment period is currently underway and ends on April 5, 2022. At that point, FDA will review comments, make revisions, and issue the final rule. If it goes forward, Komar expects an enforcement date to come in the last quarter of 2022 or 2023, based on farm size.