Feds tour Riverhead farms in run up to new food regs

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Deputy FDA commissioner Michael Taylor addresses local farmers and media Tuesday afternoon in Riverhead.

Some bigwigs from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture toured two farms in Riverhead and one in Mattituck Tuesday hoping to get input from local farmers for the FDA’s new Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law Jan. 4.

The law’s goal is to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe, and it will shift the FDA’s focus from responding to reports of food contamination to taking action to prevent that contamination, according to the FDA.

But the law’s actual guidelines haven’t been written yet, even in draft form; the FDA is in the process of developing them and is seeking feedback from growers, according to Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food who toured the local farms Tuesday. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg had been tentatively scheduled to make the tour as well, but she wasn’t present Tuesday.

Ann Wright, USDA deputy under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs, and Dora Hughes, senior adviser to the U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, were also among about 14 officials who took the East End farm tour, which reconvened Wednesday to visit several South Fork farms and one in Brookhaven Hamlet.

Locally, the federal officials visited Ed Zilnicki and Sons Farm in Riverhead, Garden of Eve Farm in Northville and Harbes Family Farm in Mattituck on Tuesday.

Jimmy Zilnicki, who grows corn, wheat and potatoes on about 200 acres off Sound Avenue, said whatever regulations the feds come up with, the guidelines have to be clear.

“I went to a meeting about this in March, and I came out of it lost,” Mr. Zilnicki said. “You really couldn’t understand it.”

He added that regulations governing one crop often can’t be applied to another crop.

“Vegetables have to have different laws than potatoes,” he said.

“The impetus for this law was that, over the last decade, there have been outbreaks of illnesses and people getting sick nationwide,” Mr. Taylor said. “So there was a coming together in the food industry calling for the FDA’s need to update its regulations that had been in effect for 70-some years and needed to be updated.”

Imported food, for instance, was one area that needed updating, Mr. Taylor said.

“In the laws that existed before this, we had a very limited tool kit for overseeing imports,” Mr. Taylor said. “We needed a stronger ability to ensure the safety of imported foods.”

Other areas that needed to be looked at, he said, were the safety of the water being used for irrigation, employee hygiene and animal intrusion into crops.

“These are things that, if not managed well, tend to cause health hazards,” he said.

The FDA has a year from the law’s Jan. 4 signing to come up with the specifics, Mr. Taylor said. During that time, FDA and USDA are soliciting input from growers. There also will be a public hearing once the draft regulations are formally presented to Congress, he said.

Local farmers say they are eager to give their input.

“We think it’s important that they understand the difference between big agriculture and small farms,” said Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau. “We have to balance food safety with the economic impacts of what this would mean to small farmers.”

Mr. Gergela said big farms, like those in the midwest and California, can afford to have a person on staff who deals with nothing but compliance issues, something small farms can’t afford.

“We need to make sure the plight of the small farmer is considered,” he said.

Many of the solutions are simple, he said.

A recent cryptosporidium outbreak in imported produce was traced back to the fact that the labor supply in Central America had poor hand-washing practices, he said.

Until now, Mr. Gergela said, there hadn’t been many FDA regulations governing farms, but he said things like the recent e-coli outbreak in California and the recent salmonella outbreak in egg production in Michigan have led to calls for more regulation, which in many cases have come from the companies buying the produce.

“The buyers are helping to dictate management practices,” Mr. Gergela said. “They want farmers to sign agreements saying how they are going to farm and where the water comes from that they use in irrigation. It’s all about traceability in case there’s a problem.”

Mr. Gergela said farmers agree with the need for such laws, “but we want it to be reasonable.”

Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) also stopped by the Zilnicki farm during Tuesday’s tour.

“Farming has been a part of the heritage of eastern Long Island since people first stated coming here,” he said. “We want to be certain that farming doesn’t die out.”

Mr. Bishop, borrowing a line from Mr. Gergela, said government officials should keep in mind that if they “want to preserve open space in this county, the best way to do it is to make farming profitable.”

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