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Produce market managers push FDA official for answers on FSMA compliance

COLUMBIA, MD -- Produce market managers looked for answers as to whether they will be on the hook for the new Food Safety Modernization Act but left with few answers from the March 23 meeting of the National Association of Produce Market Managers.

More than 75 NAPMM members attended the four-day meeting, here, which featured high-level officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food & Drug Administration, as well as tours of Lexington and Broadway Markets in Baltimore, the Eastern and Union Markets in Washington, DC, and the Maryland Wholesale Produce and Seafood Markets.

On the last day, produce managers peppered FDA Senior Food Adviser Jenny Scott with questions about FSMA's reach beyond the tenants that sell fresh produce to the companies that manage the properties.

"Do we as landlords need to comply?" asked Mike Janis, manager of the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market.

Other market managers explained that tenants own the food and will have to comply with new FSMA requirements, but managers are concerned the common dock area where food passes through on the way to the tenants may be subject to new FSMA safety controls.

It's hard to obtain a HACCP-approved certification from a third party because the general public has access to these facilities, a manager explained.

"These are some of the questions you ought to submit" to FDA during the comment period on the produce and preventive controls rules, which ends May 16, Ms. Scott said.

Certainly, current Good Manufacturing Practices apply to these facilities, but it will turn on whether businesses need to register with FDA because they hold, process, manufacture or pack foods as to whether FSMA's new requirements apply, she added.

"I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm here on Saturday morning because I expected this presentation to address the facilities we all deal with in our careers," said J. Gary Lee, managing member of the Towson, MD-based Lee Real Estate Advisors LLC.

Mr. Janis suggested the group pull back, "think strategically" about the issue and team up with other organizations to flesh out comments on the proposed rules. "We completely understood some of this is gray," he added.

"There are no definitive answers at this time," said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy at the United Fresh Produce Association, who followed Ms. Scott on the panel "What Do New Food Regulations Mean to Market Owners and Merchants and Tenants."

"The question you have to ask yourself is, do you want FDA to define the questions you have or do you want to help define them?" Mr. Guenther asked.

"I would say the biggest question is what the word 'hold' means as it moves from your facility from the dock to the wholesaler," he said.

For tenants, the rule will dramatically affect suppliers and result in cost increases. The produce industry is perhaps one of the industries most directly affected under the new food-safety law, and consumer groups and others will be prodding FDA to add finished product testing and other costly safeguards to the final rule, Mr. Guenther told the group.

United Fresh is coordinating with internal industry work groups to draft comments that are due May 16. Mr. Guenther said that his group relies on companies to inform United Fresh on how these rules will work in the real world.

The relationship between tenants and market managers, and the definition of facility is another issue the industry will need to think about, Mr. Guenther added.