Last year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its proposed changes to the Produce Safety Rule’s Subpart E-agricultural water requirements. The requirements are split into two different categories and compliance dates. One for pre-harvest water and the other for harvest and postharvest water.
Pre-Harvest Ag Water
The changes revamped the cumbersome water testing requirement FDA initially proposed. The proposed Produce Safety Rule agriculture water requirements would replace the pre-harvest microbial quality criteria and testing requirements for production water with agricultural water assessments. This approach would offer the necessary flexibility for farms to evaluate a range of factors for individual farm-specific cases using a systems-based approach unlike a one-size-fits-all approach.
The proposed changes to the pre-harvest agricultural water have not been finalized. The FDA issued a proposed rulemaking to extend the compliance dates for the pre-harvest agricultural water provisions as outlined: Two years and nine months after the effective date of a final rule for very small farms; one year and nine months after the effective date of a final rule for small farms; and nine months after the effective date of a final rule for large farms.
Postharvest Ag Water
In the changes to the ag water requirements, the requirements for the harvest and postharvest water were unchanged. As a result, the Produce Safety Rule agricultural water requirements for harvest and postharvest compliance date begins January 26, 2023 for large farms.
For the tree nut industry, this means farms and hullers that use water during harvest and/or pre-harvest will now be expected to be in compliance for this portion of the rule during their Produce Safety Rule inspection. Walnut and pistachio hullers classified as large farms will need to begin water testing in 2023.
The microbial quality criterion for the water used during harvest and postharvest must ensure there is no detectable generic Escherichia coli (E. coli) in 100 milliliters (mL) of agricultural water, and you must not use untreated surface water for any of these purposes:
- Used during or after harvest activities in a manner that directly contacts covered produce (e.g., water that is applied to covered produce for washing or cooling activities, water that is applied to harvested crops to prevent dehydration before cooling and water that is used to make ice that directly contacts covered produce during or after harvest activities);
- Used to contact food contact surfaces, or to make ice that will contact food surfaces; and
- Used for washing hands during and after harvest activities.
In the first year, farms must initially test the microbial quality of each source of ground water at least four times over a period of one year. If your four initial sample results meet the microbial quality criterion, you may test once annually thereafter. If any annual test fails to meet the microbial quality criterion of no detectable generic E. coli, you must immediately discontinue the use and meet the initial requirements before resuming.
You must manage water used by establishing and following water-change schedules for float tank water to maintain its safe and adequate sanitary quality. You must also visually monitor the quality of water. The temperature of water that is appropriate for the commodity must also be monitored. You will need to maintain a record of your water-change schedule.
Other requirements will be needed for water treatments to ensure it meets the minimum standard and recordkeeping requirements.
Inspections and On-Farm Readiness Reviews
FDA’s mantra has been “educate before we regulate” and that will be their intent with these new requirements unless there is an egregious condition. Inspections in California will be conducted on behalf of FDA by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). Inspections are scheduled a week or two in advance with the farm. Beginning in 2023, inspection will include the harvest and postharvest water requirements.
On-Farm Readiness Reviews (OFRR) are voluntary mock inspections and are provided to farms to test their readiness of the PSR requirements. These OFRRs are conducted by CDFA and have proven to be helpful in determining what to expect during a PSR inspection and are highly recommended. Our organization will plan for regional OFRR in coordination with CDFA in 2023 to assist the tree nut in ensuring successful compliance with the Produce Safety Rule. We encourage any growers or hullers that have not had an inspection already or previously participated in an OFRR to do so when the opportunity comes up. We will be there, and you will find it well worth your time!