New rule affects management of soil ammendments
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New rule affects management of soil ammendments

August 7, 2013

By Christine Souza,

 

Editor's note: This is Part 1 of a series of stories about how proposed federal food-safety rules could affect California farmers and ranchers.

All farmers use some form of biological soil amendment as a critical part of growing a successful crop, in order to enhance the soil's chemical or physical condition or to improve its capacity to hold water. Under the new federal Food Safety Modernization Act, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed standards that could affect how farmers use soil amendments.

Third-generation farmer Todd Hirasuna, general manager of Sunnyside Packing Co. in Selma, grows, packs and ships organic and conventional vegetables and maintains a food safety program. Like many other growers, he hires a certified agronomist to provide recommendations about the different nutrients the soil and the crop need.

"Every couple of years we'll do compost or gypsum, depending on what our soil sample says we need, but a lot of it is feather meal and bat guano; you preload it with dry pre-plant and supplement it with liquid fertilizers throughout the season," Hirasuna said. "We utilize as much modern-day technology as we possibly can."

The FDA proposed rule for produce offers specifics on the use of biological soil amendments of animal origin—such as composted manure—with measures to reduce food-safety risk that focus on types of treatment, methods of application, and time intervals between application of a biological soil amendment of animal origin and crop harvest. The proposed rule also has provisions pertaining to the handling and storage of soil amendments.

Trevor Suslow, University of California Cooperative Extension specialist, said the greatest contention over this part of the rule is about the time lags between application and harvest for organic soil amendments and related fertility management materials. In the proposed rule, the interval between application of a biological soil amendment and harvest of certain types of produce depends on whether the amendment has been treated and how it was treated.

Suslow said some growers are dissatisfied with the proposed 45-day wait between application and harvest for composted materials that are professionally prepared, process-certified and tested for pathogens.

The 45-day interval for treated soil amendments in the proposed FDA rule conflicts with National Organic Program standards that do not require an interval between application and harvest for manure treated by a composting process consistent with NOP standards. Similarly, the NOP requires a three-to-four-month interval for use of untreated soil amendments, whereas the FDA rule would require a nine-month interval.

"There are a lot of complaints about (the FDA rule) as being much, much more conservative than the organic standards," Suslow said.

He said farmers "need to be aware that the responsibility for understanding and knowing that compost process is being managed properly is actually on them, not on the composter (or manufacturer), because FDA is regulating the product."

Organic farmer Thomas Broz of Life Earth Farm in Watsonville said he plans to go over the Food Safety Modernization Act with his third-party certifier, but believes "there should not be a waiting period (before applying) approved compost applications that are from products that have been purchased." He said compost made on the farm that follows procedures set by a certification agency should also have no waiting period.

Hirasuna said the proposed FDA rule for soil amendments "could force us to redo our growing methods and philosophies on how to optimize the input vs. output ratio." But, he said, "we have preventive measures that we put into place to minimize any risk that we can. A lot of times, this far exceeds what FDA is asking us to do."

For a number of years, many California growers—conventional and organic—have had food safety plans in place and incorporated "good agricultural practices" to minimize the potential for contamination of fresh produce by pathogens such as salmonella, E.coli O157:H7 and others. Many farmers say their customers have set food safety standards that go beyond what FDA has proposed.

"The rules are stricter from our customers than they are from the agencies," said Tim Chiala, general manager of George Chiala Farms in Santa Clara County. "I think farmers will be able to use FSMA as a marketing tool. I tell people that we are third-party audited, but people don't really know what that means. But if you can say that you comply with all FSMA rules and regulations and are monitored by the government for food safety, it's worth saying."

Santa Cruz County organic farmer Dick Peixoto is third-party certified and has a food safety plan in place. He said all compost used on his farm has been approved as being pathogen-free.

"All of our compost has lot numbers. We buy from a company that keeps records on the turning (of the compost)," Peixoto said. "Many of the smaller guys do their own composting, so the problem is, how do they document that? If they can't do their compost anymore, they have to buy commercial compost like everybody else. That might be the bigger issue, forcing them out of doing their own composting."

Cantaloupe grower Garrett Patricio of Firebaugh said it is important for growers to have proper recordkeeping.

"It is about making sure that whatever soil amendments you are using, you have records to document where it came from, when it is being used and that it has been handled and treated properly prior to any application," Patricio said.

Suslow recommended that all farmers should become knowledgeable about proposed requirements in the FSMA produce rule.

"In my experience, it is a mistake to think that because you are audited under some program, you are already satisfying whatever the ultimate produce safety rule will contain," he said.

Josh Rolph of the California Farm Bureau Federation Federal Policy Division noted that smaller growers—those with average annual sales of $25,000 or less—are exempt from the proposed rule.

"We encourage all sizes of farming operations to read the provisions and provide comments to FDA for use in shaping the final produce rule," Rolph said. "All growers need to be aware of what is in the rule and know that this is their opportunity to shape it."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

 

Taken from the August 7th edition of Ag Alert, a weekly publication from the California Farm Bureau Federation

Last Updated Sunday, December 17, 2017 - 02:05 AM.