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Not Sure Where To Start With FSMA Compliance? Have You Tested Your Water?

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

By Sarah Everhart

Photo Credit Edwin Remsberg. Image of crops at Calvert’s Gift Farm, Sparks, MD.

The article is not a substitute for legal advice. See here for the site’s reposting policy.

If the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and specifically the Produce Safety Rule (PSR) applies to your operation (if you are unsure, check out this past post), one of the first questions you may ask yourself is, “Where do I start?” A great place to start is to attend a PSR Grower Training. Having someone from your farm attend a training is a legal requirement of the PSR. The Maryland Department of Agriculture and the University of Maryland offer PSR Trainings throughout the state in the winter months. What, though, can a farmer do now? There are a few steps a grower can take including implementing compliant food safety practices, keeping good records, and testing water.

According to the PSR, all agricultural water “must be safe and of adequate sanitary quality for its intended use.” Agricultural water is defined in part as “water (that is) intended to, or is likely to, contact covered produce or food contact surfaces” and covered produce is defined in part as “the harvestable or harvested part of the crop.” In many instances, water used for drip irrigation is not considered “agricultural water” as it does not come into contact with the harvested part of the crop.

Different water quality criteria are established for water used during growing activities and for water used during and after harvest. Both are based on testing water for generic E.coli, which is an indicator of fecal contamination.

For agricultural water that is used during growing activities, a microbial water quality profile (MWQP) has to be developed. The MWQP is intended to help a grower make water management decisions using a rolling 4-year data set of results to understand water quality determined through water testing and two statistical calculations: a geometric mean (GM) and a statistical threshold value (STV).

The MWQP is based on at least 4 samples for ground water sources of agricultural water (e.g., protected well), and at least 20 samples for surface water sources of agricultural water (e.g., pond, stream, river) tested for generic E.coli.

To be compliant: Agricultural water used during growing activities must have a GM of 126 or less CFU/100 mL generic E. coli and a STV of 410 or less CFU/100 mL generic E. coli, and agricultural water used during and after harvest must have no detectable generic E. coli in 100 mL of water.

When the PSR was published. farmers were given two additional years after the PSR compliance dates to comply with the water quality requirements. Given the complexity of the testing and quality requirements, however, in September 2017 the FDA proposed to extend the two years to an additional four and specified that farmers have an additional four years until they must begin the water testing needed to build a MWQP.

Here are the proposed water testing compliance dates:

  1. Larger farms (average annual produce sales > $500K) have until 1/26/22 to begin the MWQP testing.

  2. Small farms (average annual produce sales > $250K < $500K) have until 1/26/23 to begin the MWQP testing.

  3. Very small farms (average annual produce sales > $25K < $250K) have until 1/26/24 to begin the MWQP testing.

So why should a farmer worry about water testing in 2018 when the FDA may extended the testing compliance dates? The operator of any farm required to comply with the PSR water quality standards will be well served to know as soon as possible if the water currently being used in the production of produce is non-compliant. If water is non-compliant, an operation may have to explore an alternative water source, water treatment and/or make adjustments to the overall layout of production areas. Farmers should also consider having the testing done using a method that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers equivalent to EPA Method 1603. For more information on testing requirements, check out this resource.

If the FDA makes further adjustments to the PSR water testing and quality requirements, we will feature the changes in a future post. Stay tuned!

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