Commentary: Phase-in of Produce Safety Rule begins this month

Issue Date: January 10, 2018
By Veronica Nigh
Veronica Nigh
The Produce Safety Rule begins taking effect this month. Part of the federal Food Safety Modernization Act, the rule features five main sections, including employee training, health and hygiene. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it will focus on education and readiness, rather than regulation and compliance, in its first year administering the rule.
Photo/Paolo Vescia

The Food Safety Modernization Act, the most sweeping reform of our food safety laws in more than 70 years, was signed by President Obama on Jan. 4, 2011. After seven years and several rounds of rulemaking, the FSMA Produce Safety Rule will come into effect this Jan. 26 for the largest produce growers in the United States.

The Food and Drug Administration has emphasized the first year will focus less on regulation and compliance and more on education and readiness. But no doubt about it, times are changing on the produce farm.

FSMA is put into action by a series of rules that specify how the law should be carried out. While all of the rules will ultimately impact how FSMA food safety programs are carried out, it has been the Produce Safety Rule that has garnered the most interest and concern among produce growers.

The final Produce Safety Rule was published in 2015. Since that time, the industry has been actively preparing for the day when implementation would begin. This month, the Produce Safety Rule will become a reality for growers with more than $500,000 in annual revenue. Small farms with sales between $250,000 and $500,000 come under compliance in January 2019. Very small farms—with sales greater than $25,000 but less than $250,000—will be regulated in January 2020.

The produce rule includes five main parts: biological soil amendments; domesticated and wild animals; worker training, health and hygiene; equipment, tools and buildings; and agricultural water and testing. Growers of sprouts have an additional set of rules, in addition to those five. On Jan. 26, growers of covered produce will be expected to be in compliance with the first four of the five parts.

With regard to the fifth part, agricultural water and testing: After significant concerns from the industry were raised, FDA proposed revised standards and compliance dates for agricultural water. The new agricultural water compliance date the FDA proposes for the largest farms is Jan. 26, 2022. Small farms and tiny farms would have until Jan. 26, 2023, and Jan. 26, 2024, respectively.

The new FDA proposal for compliance standards for water quality standards and related testing is expected this year. It is believed that the proposed extension will give the agency time to take another look at the water standards, to ensure they are feasible for farmers in all regions of the country while protecting public health.

In the meantime, farmers on larger operations will be focusing on ensuring they are in compliance with the other elements of the Produce Safety Rule. The FDA and its state partners have stated they will use 2018 to provide more education, training and outreach on the new requirements. In particular, states—in conjunction with the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture and the FDA—will expand On-Farm Readiness Reviews, already piloted in six states, in which a team of state officials, cooperative extension agents and FDA produce experts provides farmers with an assessment of their "readiness" to meet the new requirements. Inspections to assess compliance will begin in 2019.

The On-Farm Readiness Review was tested this summer in six states: Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon and Vermont. Training on the tool will be provided regionally during the early part of 2018 so that representatives from state regulatory agencies and university extension in all states can be trained on using the tool, in order to aid farmers as they work to achieve compliance.

(Editor's note: Ten workshops on Produce Safety Rule compliance will be held in Central and Southern California in January and February, sponsored by the Farm Employers Labor Service, California Farm Bureau Federation and Safe Food Alliance. For information, see

The natural next question is: How many farms will need to come under FSMA Produce Safety Rule compliance later this month? By using the 2012 Census of Agriculture as a rough data set, we can begin to understand the general level of impact. According to the census, there were 6,647 farms with vegetable, melon, fruit and tree farming with sales of $500,000 or more. More or less, these are the "large farms" as defined by FSMA that would need to be in compliance soon. This represents about 8 percent of all fruit, nut, vegetable and melon farms in the U.S.

This number probably overstates the number of farms in certain states, such as North Dakota, which have a lot of farms that grow vegetables that are rarely consumed raw, such as potatoes, and are thus exempt from FSMA.

This number also probably understates the number of diversified farms that are impacted. The $500,000 threshold doesn't just include produce sales; it includes all food sales, which would include sales of animal food, milk, etc.

However, what the U.S. Department of Agriculture data do generally show us is that we will all be looking toward California, Florida, Michigan, Washington and New Jersey to see what FSMA really looks like on the farm. It's going to be a whole new, FSMA world out there.

(Veronica Nigh is an economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation. She may be reached at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.