By Vicky Boyd

The California Department of Food and Agriculture began notifying large-scale producers in February that it planned to start inspections later in April as part of the federal Produce Safety Rule, raising grower concerns. 

Bruce Blodgett, San Joaquin Farm Bureau executive director, said he’d received a couple of calls from members asking about the letter.

“We’re just trying to get more information at this point about what (CDFA’s) intent is,” he said.

Josh Rolph, manager of the California Farm Bureau’s Federal Policy division, said he had fielded several calls about the CDFA notification letters. In many cases, the caller was caught off guard and didn’t realize food safety inspections were in the works.

“Kudos to San Joaquin Farm Bureau – they’ve been leaders on this issue and making sure growers are educated on the impacts this will have,” Rolph said. “We’ve been trying, but I think once it actually goes into effect, when growers start to realize the true impact this rule has, there will be a lot of reasons to be concerned.”

Among those are increased recordkeeping and the cost associated with produce safety programs and related inspections.

“The costs are going to go up, and it’s just going to make us less competitive nationally,” he said.

Joe Ferrari, who handles food safety for his family’s walnut and cherry growing operation and walnut huller near Linden, has taken the issue seriously. 

Of his 100 binders holding paperwork for various regulations, seven are just for food safety, Ferrari said. And those don’t count the ones for third-party food safety audits required by various buyers.

“We’re more exposed because different packinghouses are going to ask for different things,” he said. 

As a huller, Ferrari has to meet additional requirements that include a preventive control program. To prepare for potential inspections, he also participated in an on-farm readiness review coordinated by the Western Agricultural Processors Association for nut hullers and growers. 

Ferrari, who is well-versed in the produce safety regulation, said he wasn’t surprised to receive CDFA’s letter. He had been expecting some type of notification based on the Food Safety Modernization Act implementation calendar.

“For the longest time, I tried to call CDFA about whether they were going to enforce it or another agency in the health department,” Ferrari said. “I didn’t know who was going to be the one implementing it, since FSMA leaves it up to the government of each state.”

Letter included questionnaire

Included with CDFA’s notification letter was a questionnaire asking the fruit and vegetable crop or crops grown, water sources, adjacent land uses, whether the farm had developed and implemented a Good Agricultural Practices/food safety plan, and whether at least one person on the farm had completed an FDA-recognized Produce Safety Rule Grower Training Course.

The responses will be used to develop farm profiles using the Food and Drug Administration’s “Prioritization Tool.” Profiles with greater numerical totals may be given higher inspection priorities, according to the letter.

Failure to reply to the questionnaire by March 15 could net the respondent the “greatest numerical value and thus increase the need for inspection of your farm,” the state warned in the letter.

As of mid-March, CDFA had received slightly more than a 20-percent response, said Steve Lyle, department spokesman. Because the survey is voluntary, he said he expected replies will continue to trickle in.

Deadlines based on farm size

Working in partnership with the FDA, CDFA is currently focusing on large farms defined as having annual sales of $500,000 or more. Under the FSMA implementation calendar, farms of that size were to have complied with the Produce Safety Rule by January 2018, with inspections starting in April.

Based on information from county agricultural commissioners, the state identified about 25,000 farms covered by the Produce Safety Rule, of which about 12,000 fell under the large-farm category.

Small-scale farms, defined as having sales between $250,000 and $500,000, were to be in compliance by January. Inspections are scheduled to start in 2020.

And very small farms, defined as having sales between $25,000 and $250,000, are to be in compliance by January 2020. Inspections will start in 2021.

The Produce Safety Rule covers all raw produce items, although the FDA exempted 30 commodities typically not consumed raw. Among those are asparagus, dried beans, sweet corn, collards, dill weed, eggplants, potatoes, pumpkins, winter squash and sweet potatoes.

Winegrape growers also will not be inspected due to language in recently passed U.S. Department of Agriculture and FDA appropriations bills that exempted them since winegrapes undergo processing and are not eaten raw.

Although the funding bills are just for this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, California Association of Winegrape Growers’ President John Aguirre said he’s confident the winegrape exemption will be included in the FY 2019-20 USDA and FDA appropriations bills.

Growers of other processed commodities, such as olives, peaches, tomatoes and citrus, along with almonds that will be pasteurized can use the processing exemption. But it involves a written disclosure that must accompany each load from the farm through processing.

Rolph said CFBF has sought both administrative and legislative fixes federally for produce that is processed. Although U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue has been sympathetic, he carries little weight as the FDA oversees food safety.

Legislative changes also have proven difficult since FSMA is a political issue that Congress is hesitant to modify.

On-farm inspections begin this month

The state is divided into four regions, with CDFA’s Produce Safety Program having one FDA-credentialed inspector for each region. DeLavian Dyson is assigned to Region 2, which covers 11 counties from Merced north to Sacramento and east to the Nevada border. San Joaquin County is included in Region 2.

The state plans to hire three more inspectors this year, with three additional ones brought on board in 2020, Lyle said.

With limited manpower, CDFA will consider several factors to prioritize on-farm inspections, he said. Among them are farm size; higher-priority commodities, such as leafy greens, melons and peppers; fresh-market versus processing; and other information including food safety certifications and training. 

“On-farm readiness reviews will be conducted by newer staff with oversight from state supervisors,” Lyle said.” This will allow regional staff to focus on inspections.

“The intent of the program is to proactively educate before and while we regulate. Knowing the PSP is not going to visit every farm every year, the department will utilize its resources to provide services across as many sectors of farms as possible.”

Nearly all inspections will be announced, with growers contacted one to two weeks beforehand, he said. The exception will be in rare cases that involve an investigation or if a grower refuses to allow an inspection.

Because the program’s initial goal is to educate and bring growers into compliance, Lyle said minor infractions that don’t pose an immediate public health risk will be discussed with the grower and corrected at the time or before a follow-up visit, if necessary.

CDFA, along with 46 other states, have entered into cooperative agreements with the FDA to implement the Produce Safety Rule. As a result, California’s Produce Safety Program is funded by the federal government, with no state funds being used, he said.