by SUSAN MANN
Canadian horticultural industry leaders are poring over documents issued by the United States Food and Drug Administration last month outlining new food safety requirements for American growers and businesses shipping produce to the United States.
Canadian and Ontario growers exporting produce to the United States may be impacted by the new rules released as part of the American Food Safety Modernization Act and slated to take effect Jan. 26, 2016. The American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released the three sets of rules Nov. 13. They are: the produce rule governing growing, harvesting, packing and holding of produce; foreign supplier verification and accreditation of third-party auditors and certification bodies.
Companies and farmers in the states along with those exporting to the United States are being given time to meet the new requirements.
Jim Gorny, vice president of food safety and technology for the U.S.-based Produce Marketing Association, says the rules will have “ a significant impact on produce businesses, in that they will affect how businesses operate on a daily basis and set definitive regulatory compliance expectations for FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulated businesses.”
The compliance dates depend on the size of a business, Gorny says. Large businesses with more than US $500,000 annually in sales have two years to comply with the new regulations and four years to meet the new water testing provisions. Small farms, defined as US $250,000 to $500,000 a year in sales, have three years to comply with the rules and five years to fall in line with the water rules. Very small farms, US $25,000 to $250,000 in sales annually, have four years to comply with the rules overall and six years for the water rules.
Heather Gale, executive director of CanadaGAP, the Canadian food safety program for the fresh fruit and vegetable sector, says they will be reviewing the new U.S. rules and comparing them to the requirements in Canada’s program. The program’s analysis will be published on its website sometime “in the new year,” Gale says.
“The idea there is to try to identify any gaps between what (Canadian) growers are already doing for CanadaGAP and what might be additionally required for the (U.S) produce rule,” she explains.
Gale says she hasn’t yet reviewed the American rules in detail but “we know there are some differences.” For example, there are differences in the two sets of rules in what’s acceptable for hand washing.
One section in the American produce rule deals with water quality standards and testing. Gale says that section is very convoluted and complicated. There is a difference between CanadaGAP water quality standards and the new American rules for irrigation water, she notes.
CanadaGAP doesn’t require irrigation water to be tested but the American rules will require testing in some cases. Participants in CanadaGAP must do a risk assessment of their irrigation water sources to determine whether they would be a source of contamination.
“We strongly recommend that people test, but we don’t mandate it because in some cases it’s not necessary,” she notes.
Other than the two areas of hand washing options and irrigation water, the American produce rule and the CanadaGAP standards “line up very well from what we’ve looked at so far,” she notes.
Since the two countries’ food safety rules are comparable, Canadian growers who export to the United States may not have to do too much more than what they’re already doing as part of CanadaGAP. It could be that Canadian growers might need an addendum to their CanadaGAP audit to demonstrate “they meet these other few little different things,” she says, noting that would be the worst-case scenario she could imagine now.
Gorny says as part of the package of rules, the produce regulation establishes science-based standards for the growing, harvesting, packing and holding of produce on farms. The produce rule is for fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, tree nuts, and it applies to both domestic and imported products, he says.
However there are some exemptions, including:
- Produce that’s rarely eaten raw.
- Farms that have less than US $25,000 of produce sales a year.
- A qualified exemption for farmers selling mainly directly to customers.
There are also modified requirements for growers whose produce goes towards commercial processing, such as tomatoes for canning or paste production. Gorny says cucumbers grown in Ontario and shipped to the United States for pickling may be exempt from the U.S. rules depending on the type of pickling process used.
Al Krueger, executive assistant with the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers, says by email Ontario cucumber growers are “already doing what’s required under the new Food Safety Modernization Act.”
Another part of the American package of new food safety rules is the Foreign Supplier Verification Program. It specifies importers are required to verify food imported into the United States has been produced to the same food safety standards required of U.S. producers, Gorny says.
There are also requirements for accreditation of third-party auditors and certification bodies to do food safety audits and issue certification. “This regulation aims to establish a comprehensive, credible and reliable program of oversight based on third-party audits and certification of foreign food facilities to help FDA make decisions regarding the admissibility of imported foods,” he says.
Gale says this provision has a section recognizing third-party certification and Canada GAP “might fit under there.”
One Ontario industry that’s a major exporter to the United States is the greenhouse sector with close to 70 per cent of the province’s production of cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes being exported and virtually all of the exports going to the United States, says Rick Seguin, general manager with the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers.
In 2014, Ontario greenhouse tomato exports to the United States were, in Canadian dollars, $232 million; greenhouse peppers were $200 million; and greenhouse cucumbers were $149 million. Total Ontario farm gate sales of these products were $840 million in 2014.
Richard Lee, operations and compliance manager, says the marketers licensed by the Ontario greenhouse growers organization will be required to ensure “their growers are meeting the minimum requirements” in the new U.S. food safety rules.
The Greenhouse Vegetable Growers licenses growers, packers and marketers, and one person can hold all three licences. There are 210 growers in Ontario and 36 licensed marketers.
The association also requires all of its growers to have third-party food safety certification. Many Ontario greenhouse growers get the Global Food Safety Initiative audit, which “is comparable to what the U.S. FDA is requesting,” Lee says. “The only thing that’s really missing is the hazard analysis and preventative controls.”
Lee says there are hazard analysis and preventative controls in place for Ontario growers “but it may require additional paperwork to confirm those processes are in place and backed up with science-based confirmation.”
Tammy Jarbeau, Canadian Food Inspection Agency spokesperson, says by email exporters are responsible for verifying that their products meet a foreign country’s import requirements.
However the two countries are working together to align Canadian food safety requirements in the Safe Food for Canadians Act regulations, which are still being developed, with those in the new American Food Safety Modernization Act, she says. BF