Concerned Georgia farmers gathered in Atlanta, Macon and Tifton recently to hear a summary of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s new Food Safety Modernization Act.

Proposed by Congress, the act was developed in an effort to improve the safety of the nation’s food supply.

Representatives from the FDA, the Georgia Department of Agriculture, the Georgia Farm Bureau, the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences were on hand to field questions about the act. Similar listening sessions are being held in selected other states.

Opinions sought

Growers and consumers have until May 16 to submit their concerns regarding the proposed regulations.

“We are aware of the different climates, growing practices and scales of operation,” said Mike Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine for the FDA. “We have our hands full to come up with a rule that takes account of all that diversity…and is feasible at the end of the day.”

Taylor applauded farmers for taking an active role in risk management. “We are asking you to put on one more hat — manage food safety on your farms,” he said.

The listening sessions in Georgia focused primarily on the proposed standards for harvesting, packing and holding produce for human consumption.

A second proposed rule recently released for public comment addresses preventative controls in food processing businesses and restaurants, including animal foods and foods imported into the U.S.

“We have to protect U.S. growers from imported foods undercutting consumer confidence in their products,” Taylor said.

Under the new act, food importers would be required to document their processes. Currently, the U.S. relies on “a few FDA inspectors,” Taylor said. “We are shifting the paradigm. We’ll be doing more foreign inspections and strengthening private audits to increase public confidence.”

Inspection system has improved

Mike Doyle, director of the UGA Center for Food Safety in Griffin, Ga., said the nation’s current foodborne outbreak detection system has improved over the past few years and is now “incredibly effective at detecting outbreaks” of foodborne illness.

“Most recently we’ve had outbreaks tracked to organic spinach, pistachios, hazelnuts and cantaloupes. A recent CDC study found leafy greens were responsible for 22 percent of foodborne illnesses,” Doyle said.