“The most important thing that it does is give us a focus on prevention,” says FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey. “Instead of being in a position where we have to respond to outbreaks, it puts a responsibility on producers to put into place preventive controls to make sure their food is safe.”
When it comes to produce safety, the goal is to keep pathogens away from crops.
Bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella – the most frequently reported sources of food-borne illness – live in animal intestines and travel in feces. To prevent crop contamination, experts say, farmers should focus on the four W’s: water, waste, wildlife, and workers.
Still, when fruits and vegetables are eaten raw, there can be no guarantee that the produce is pathogen-free.
“There’s no zero-risk in fresh fruits or vegetables,” says Betsy Bihn, coordinator of a farm safety training program operated out of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and funded in part by the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture. “The best we can do is reduce risk and do the things that make the most sense.”
Reducing risk is the foundation of the new food safety law, which for the first time empowers the FDA to regulate the safety practices of produce farmers. Though the FDA won’t propose its new regulations until next year, the law requires the rules to focus on soil treatment, worker hygiene, packaging, temperature controls, animals in the growing area, and water.
Though the Germany-based E. coli outbreak is the latest reminder of the high cost of food contamination, a series of outbreaks in the US led to the Food Safety Modernization Act.