DOAG: DOAG PLAYS IMPORTANT ROLE IN FOOD-SAFETY WHILE MONITORING CHANGES IN FEDERAL RULES FOR FARMERS


DOAG PLAYS IMPORTANT ROLE IN FOOD-SAFETY WHILE MONITORING

CHANGES IN FEDERAL RULES FOR FARMERS

By Mark Zotti, DoAg Bureau of   Regulation and Inspection

 

When Hurricane Irene struck Connecticut three summers ago, much of the state’s focus was on the devastation to shoreline homes and power outages that left hundreds of thousands in the dark for a week or more.

           

But what was of equal concern to many farmers was the associated flooding that overwhelmed septic systems, pumping stations and sewage treatment facilities commonly located near rivers – and low-lying crop production areas.

           

Polluted flood waters infiltrated fields and caused widespread contamination, prompting the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to declare affected crops inedible.

           

At the direction of Governor Dannel P. Malloy and in coordination with other state agencies at the state Emergency Operations Center, Dept. of Agriculture (DoAg) Cmsr. Steven K. Reviczky dispatched employees across the state to notify producers of the potential impact on crops intended for human consumption.

 

In many cases, orders were issued to destroy crops – as well as shellfish such as oysters and clams - that had been in direct contact with flood waters. Responding to such major emergencies is just one example of the role that DoAg plays in monitoring and maintaining food safety in Connecticut.

 

The agency has specific statutory authority regarding dairy production and processing; egg production and grading; certain poultry slaughter, and the manufacturing of animal feeds including pet food.

 

“DoAg has diverse authority and we take our public health responsibilities very seriously,” Cmsr. Reviczky said. “Our professional employees are dedicated to ensuring that high food safety standards are maintained.”

 

While it is a common misconception that all on-farm food production is regulated by DoAg, it is currently divided between the state Dept. of Consumer Protection (DCP) and the Dept. of Public Health (DPH).

 

DCP has broad statutory powers that include enforcement of the U.S.Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. It also has adopted certain sections of the Code of Federal Regulations as Connecticut state regulations.

 

The DPH Food Protection program, administered through local public health officials, is largely responsible for overseeing food sourcing and handling practices in the food service industry such as restaurants, and in other places where prepared food is sold to the public.


Based on significant stakeholder input, the Governor’s Council for Agricultural Development is considering a recommendation that seeks to streamline implementation of the pending federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) by designating DoAg as the lead agency on food safety matters.

 

DoAg now inspects all phases in the production, transportation, processing, sampling and retail sales of milk and certain milk products. Dairy division staff also conducts unannounced inspections of farms, processing facilities, and retail establishments that sell both pasteurized and raw milk.

 

These inspections include verification of compliance with the FDA’s Pasteurized Milk Ordinance, and can involve collection of water and milk samples. Inspections also may include checking for updated licenses, properly maintained equipment, facility cleanliness and ensuring the milking animals are healthy and well-cared for.  

 

Like most states and the USDA, Connecticut exempts sales of eggs directly to consumers from regulatory oversight except for labeling and refrigeration requirements. This exemption, however, does not allow producers to sell eggs through retail establishments, through distributors or to food service establishments.

 

A minimum of 3,000 laying birds is required to participate in the USDA inspection program. In order to facilitate the ability of smaller egg producers to sell through retail establishments and distributors or to food service establishments, DoAg took on the responsibility of providing regulatory oversight of producers with flocks of between 200 and 3,000 birds.

 

Such producers may participate in the agency’s Voluntary Small Egg Inspection Program which has egg room sanitation regulations and egg grading regulations substantially similar to USDA’s.

 

DoAg cannot mandate a Salmonella enteritis (SE) surveillance program - required by the FDA of all producers with more than 3,000 birds – but does offer a voluntary SE reduction program.

 

DoAg also does not have specific food safety responsibility in the production of fruits and vegetables, but the agency is closely following a proposed Produce Safety Rule that is part of FSMA.

 

Adopted by Congress in 2010 and administered by the FDA, the act will change how food is regulated throughout the country. For example, the Produce Safety Rule will, for the first time, mandate certain on-farm practices in the cultivation and processing of produce intended for human consumption.

  

It is intended to implement science-based standards in the growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of produce. Those standards include:

 

  • Agricultural Water: Farmers would have to ensure that water intended or likely to contact produce or food-contact surfaces is safe and of adequate sanitary quality, with inspection and periodic testing requirements.
  • Biological Soil Amendments of Animal Origin: The proposed rule specifies types of treatment, methods of application, and time intervals between application of certain soil amendments — including manure and composted manure — and crop harvest.
  •  Health and Hygiene: Farm personnel would have to follow hygienic practices, including hand washing, not working when sick, and maintaining personal cleanliness.
  • Domesticated and Wild Animals: The proposed rule would require certain measures, such as waiting periods between grazing and crop harvest, if there is a reasonable probability of contamination. With respect to wild animals, farmers must monitor for wildlife intrusion and not harvest produce visibly contaminated with animal feces. 
  • Equipment, tools, and buildings: The proposed rule sets requirements for equipment and tools that come into contact with produce, as well as for buildings and other facilities.
  • Training: The proposed rule requires training for supervisors and farm personnel who handle produce covered by the rule.

 

DoAg currently offers voluntary, on-farm third party food safety audits based on the FDA guidance above. In most cases, farms seek audits based on a request from their wholesale customers.

 

It is anticipated that there will be some exemptions built into the rule, but it is difficult to predict its full impact on Connecticut’s farmers until it is finalized later this year. The initial proposed rule is now undergoing revisions prompted by input received during an open comment period.

 

As DoAg monitors the expected new wave of rules and their impact, the agency will continue to regulate, and educate, farm and industry stakeholders to ensure consumer confidence and a healthy, prosperous business environment.