STATE COLLEGE — In an effort to help produce growers comply with the new requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act, Penn State Extension has partnered with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture on a new, voluntary program to conduct informal farm evaluations.

The Produce Safety Rule, under the federal law that was signed in 2016 — often referred to as FSMA — mandates new farm food safety standards for growing, harvesting, packing and holding fresh produce.

Supported by funding from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, extension educators will accompany Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture inspectors conducting "On-Farm Readiness Reviews." The reviews will be no-cost inspections of produce-growing operations to identify possible areas of improvement related to compliance with the FSMA Produce Safety Rule.

Extension educators and state Department of Agriculture inspectors already have completed 30 such reviews this year and currently have more than 60 scheduled.

Compliance dates for enforcement of the regulations are phased in according to average annual produce sales. Large produce farms (those with annual sales of more than $500,000) were to begin complying with FSMA requirements in January of this year. Medium-sized farms (those with annual sales between $250,000 and $500,000) have until January of 2019, while smaller farms (annual sales between $25,000 and $250,000) have until January of 2020.

According to FSMA, within each farm category, an additional two years is granted for compliance with microbial standards for water that can come in contact with the harvestable part of the crop or food contact surfaces.

On-Farm Readiness Reviews, which will take approximately four hours, depending on the size of the operation, are intended only to help farmers, stressed Luke LaBorde, Penn State professor of food science and food safety extension specialist for fruit and vegetable processing. They are conducted for farmers' benefit to identify areas for improvement to help them prepare for actual FSMA Produce Safety Rule inspections once compliance dates are reached.

"Reviewers are not there to conduct an audit, inspection or any type of regulatory assessment," he said. "State inspectors and Penn State Extension educators will simply go to the farms that request reviews and tell farmers what they need to do to be in compliance."

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