Organic Industry Mulls Response to FDA’s Revised Draft Food Safety Rules

The organic industry breathed a sigh of relief last week when the FDA released revised food safety rules that appear to take organic growers’ needs into consideration. But the devil is in the details, and the rule revisions posted on the FDA website run about 600 pages long.

While the summary information on the new draft rules appears promising, organic advocates and analysts have spent the past week digging through those devilish details, working to pin down the real-world effects the new rules could impose.

The good news for organic farmers is the agency’s unambiguous statement that proposed rules on the use of manure as fertilizer will be placed on hold indefinitely, and that farmers may continue to comply with requirements of the federal National Organic Program.

“The number one concern of many organic farmers was the conflict between the FDA’s proposed manure regulations and the NOP compost standards,” said Brise Tencer, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. “The use of compost is a key tool in organic, and this revision has fixed that problem for the time being.”

But the revised rules on other controversial issues, such as proposed water testing protocols, are less clear.

“I’m still in the process of wading through the printed pages,” said David Runsten, Policy Director for Community Alliance with Family Farmers. “What I’m reading is certainly an improvement over what they were proposing before. But there’s a lot more work to do before we can have an informed discussion.”

The first draft of the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), issued in 2013 following a series of food contamination incidents, sent shock waves through the organic farming community. Rules mandating testing and treatment of agricultural water, limiting use of manure-based fertilizer, and requiring wildlife exclusion from farms conflicted with organic certification rules and other organic practices.

Other proposed rules, such as reclassifying some small farms as “food production facilities,” would have placed crushing regulatory burdens on community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, and other small, farm-to-table business models.

 

Farmers, consumers and organic advocates responded with an avalanche of public comment, which apparently persuaded the FDA to modify, relax and scale back four of the most hotly contested sections of the draft rules. In a clarification, the agency also stated that nothing in the proposed rules would authorize or require farmers to harm threatened or endangered species.

But analysts like Runsten remain a bit skeptical about the revisions, and are holding back on a final opinion until the full text has been vetted by the people who will have to abide by the new rules.

“People who do organic farming believe the good and the bad bacteria establish a balance, and that healthy ecosystems bring good outcomes,” Runsten said. “But the FDA seems to have a preference for chemical sterilization, chemical fertilization, and seems very much biased in that direction.”

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), which lobbied hard for changes to the initial rules, shares some of those concerns. In a recent blog post, the organization said it was pleased with the FDA’s responsiveness to public comment.

But the group is parsing the revised rules to determine whether they will allow organic farmers to continue using longstanding sustainable practices, or if they will create structural regulatory preferences for chemical fertilizers, chemical water treatment, and industrial-scale farming systems.

The draft rules are currently posted online at http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm414867.htm . The official publication date for the rules will be Sept. 29th, followed by a 75-day public comment period.