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National Potato Council: A Call for Consistency

Since the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law in January 2011, the ag world has been bracing for a flood of new FDA rules governing the way agricultural products are produced, shipped and sold. Earlier this year, the FDA unveiled two sets of proposals, the Standards for Growing, Harvesting, Packing and Holding Produce for Human Consumption (commonly referred to as the Produce Rule) and the Current Good Manufacturing Practice and Hazard Analysis and Risk Based Preventive Controls for Human Food (or the Preventive Controls Rule), that would affect the U.S. potato supply chain.

Prior to the close of the public comment period in November, the National Potato Council took the opportunity to urge the FDA to revise the rules to better reflect the real-world experience of how potatoes are grown, shipped and consumed, while ensuring the regulations meet the goal of providing consumers access to healthy, safe produce.

Potatoes: A Low-Risk Commodity

As part of the proposed Produce Rule, which would regulate how fruits and vegetables are grown on farms, the FDA classified potatoes as “low risk,” making them an unregulated commodity under the rule. As the basis for this classification, the FDA considered the strong food safety track record of the U.S. potato industry and recognized that cooking potatoes serves as a kill step for foodborne pathogens that might be present on raw potatoes.

While NPC welcomed the low-risk classification for the on-farm handling and packing of potatoes, it took exception to the FDA’s proposal to regulate potatoes when they move to a shared packing shed, triggering a more stringent set of regulations as part of the Preventative Controls Rule.

In its public comments, the NPC argued that, “a low-risk raw agricultural commodity should retain its low-risk classification until it is transformed into a higher-risk commodity through processing or some other activity that increases its food safety risk.” The theory is that just because a low-risk commodity from a single farm is relocated and commingled with a low-risk commodity from their neighbors’ farms does not increase the risk profile of that commodity. In other words, potatoes are potatoes, on the farm or in a jointly-used packing shed.

Irrigation Water Testing Requirements

The NPC also took issue with the treatment of irrigation water as part of the Produce Rule. Under the proposal, the USDA uses a one-size-fits-all approach to water testing for crops, treating irrigation water used to grow produce rarely consumed raw the same as ready-to-eat crops. In its comments, the NPC emphasized that FDA’s food safety rules should recognize that the risks and appropriate standards for irrigation water differ significantly across different fruits and vegetables, and that commodity-specific standards for agricultural water should reflect the risk associated with individual crops, ensure consumer safety and provide appropriate flexibility to producers.

New Potato Food Safety Guidelines

Finally, the NPC comments argued that for commodities considered low risk, such as potatoes, industry-initiated voluntary guidelines should take the place of government oversight. NPC noted that its recently released risk assessment guide, "Commodity-Specific Food Safety Guidelines for the Production, Harvest, Storage and Packing of Potatoes," provides valuable guidance to companies that produce, harvest, store, pack and transport potatoes.

For more information about the NPC’s FSMA comments or to download the new food safety guidance document, visit http://www.nationalpotatocouncil.org.  

— By John Keeling, executive vice president and CEO

Originally posted Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013

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