FSMA & Produce

Protecting Our Food Supply



The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the most sweeping reform of our food safety laws in more than 70 years, was signed into law on January 4, 2011. It aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it.

FSMA’s primary areas include:  Preventive Controls for Human Food, Preventive Controls for Animal Food, Produce Safety, Foreign Supplier Verification Program, Third Party Certification, Sanitary Transport, and Intentional Adulteration.

Produce Safety Rule development and deployment was overseen by Cornell University with help from the Produce Safety Alliance, that is leading the “roll out” and global education.

Here the Produce Safety Rule and the rule components will be explained.


Produce Safety

The Produce Safety Rule, outlined in Section 105 of FSMA, establishes science-based minimum standards for safe production and harvesting of fresh fruits and vegetables. These standards are based on a foundation of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs). The rule is divided into several parts, including standards for:

  • Worker health, hygiene, and training
  • Agricultural water, both for production and post-harvest uses
  • Biological soil amendments (e.g., compost, manure)
  • Domesticated and wild animals
  • Equipment, tools, buildings, and sanitation
  • Production of sprouts


Just the Facts Please

Here are “the facts” and details.  Be warned, like any law, this is confusing.  This is not intended to be exhaustive, as that would take a multi-day training course…which is available and should be taken by anyone involved with the law.  Let’s look at the Agricultural Water, Biological Soil Amendments, Sprouts, Animals (domestic and wild), Worker Hygiene and Equipment/Tools/Buildings.  Additionally, Exemptions, Variance and compliance dates information are included.


Agricultural Water

  • Water quality: The final rule adopts the general approach to water quality proposed in the supplemental rule, with some changes. The final rule establishes two sets of criteria for microbial water quality, both of which are based on the presence of generic  coli, which can indicate the presence of fecal contamination.
  • No detectable generic  coliare allowed for certain uses of agricultural water in which it is reasonably likely that potentially dangerous microbes, if present, would be transferred to produce through direct or indirect contact. Examples include water used for washing hands during and after harvest, water used on food-contact surfaces, water used to directly contact produce (including to make ice) during or after harvest, and water used for sprout irrigation. The rule establishes that such water use must be immediately discontinued and corrective actions taken before re-use for any of these purposes if generic E. coli is detected. The rule prohibits use of untreated surface water for any of these purposes.


  • The second set of numerical criteria is for agricultural water that is directly applied to growing produce (other than sprouts). The criteria are based on two values, the geometric mean (GM) and the statistical threshold (STV). The GM of samples is 126 or less CFU of generic E.coli per 100 mL of water and the STV of samples is 410 CFU or less of generic E.coli in 100 mL of water.
    • The GM is an average, and therefore represents what is called the central tendency of the water quality (essentially, the average amount of generic  coli in a water source).
    • STV reflects the amount of variability in the water quality (indicating coli levels when adverse conditions come into play—like rainfall or a high river stage that can wash waste into rivers and canals). Although this is an over simplification, it can be described as the level at which 90 percent of the samples are below the value.
    • The FDA is exploring the development of an online tool that farms can use to input their water sample data and calculate these values.
    • These criteria account for variability in the data and allow for occasional high readings of generic E.coli in appropriate context, making it much less likely (as compared to the originally proposed criteria for this water use) that a farm will have to discontinue use of its water source due to small fluctuations in water quality.
    • These criteria are intended as a water management tool for use in understanding the microbial quality of agricultural water over time and determining a long-term strategy for use of water sources during growing produce other than sprouts.


  • If the water does not meet these criteria, corrective actions are required as soon as is practicable, but no later than the following year. Farmers with agricultural water that does not initially meet the microbial criteria have additional flexibility by which they can meet the criteria and then be able to use the water on their crops. These options include, for example:
    • Allowing time for potentially dangerous microbes to die off on the field by using a certain time interval between last irrigation and harvest, but no more than four consecutive days.
    • Allowing time for potentially dangerous microbes to die off between harvest and end of storage, or to be removed during commercial activities such as washing, within appropriate limits.
    • Treating the water.


  • Testing: The final rule adopts the general approach to testing untreated water used for certain purposes proposed in the supplemental notice, with some changes. The rule still bases testing frequency on the type of water source (i.e. surface or ground water).


  • In testing untreated surface water—considered the most vulnerable to external influences—that is directly applied to growing produce (other than sprouts), the FDA requires farms to do an initial survey, using a minimum of 20 samples, collected as close as is practicable to harvest over the course of two to four years. The initial survey findings are used to calculate the GM and STV (these two figures are referred to as the “microbial water quality profile”) and determine if the water meets the required microbial quality criteria.
    • After the initial survey has been conducted, an annual survey of a minimum of five samples per year is required to update the calculations of GM and STV.
    • The five new samples, plus the previous most recent 15 samples, create a rolling dataset of 20 samples for use in confirming that that the water is still used appropriately by recalculating the GM and STV.
    • For untreated ground water that is directly applied to growing produce (other than sprouts), the FDA requires farms to do an initial survey, using a minimum of four samples, collected as close as is practicable to harvest, during the growing season or over a period of one year. The initial survey findings are used to calculate the GM and STV and determine if the water meets the required microbial quality criteria.
      • After the initial survey has been conducted, an annual survey of a minimum of one sample per year is required to update the calculations of GM and STV.
      • The new sample, plus the previous most recent three samples, create a rolling dataset of four samples for use in confirming that that the water is still used appropriately by recalculating the GM and STV.


    • For untreated ground water that is used for the purposes for which no detectable generic E. coli is allowed, the FDA requires farms to initially test the untreated ground water at least four times during the growing season or over a period of one year. Farms must determine whether the water can be used for that purpose based on these results.
      • If the four initial sample results meet the no detectable generic E. coli criterion, testing can be done once annually thereafter, using a minimum of one sample. Farms must resume testing at least four times per growing season or year if any annual test fails to meet the microbial quality criterion.


    • There is no requirement to test agricultural water that is received from public water systems or supplies that meet requirements established in the rule (provided that the farm has Public Water System results or certificates of compliance demonstrating that the water meets relevant requirements), or if the water is treated in compliance with the rule’s treatment requirements.

Biological Soil Amendments

  • Raw Manure: The FDA is conducting a risk assessment and extensive research on the number of days needed between the applications of raw manure as a soil amendment and harvesting to minimize the risk of contamination. (A soil amendment is a material, including manure, that is intentionally added to the soil to improve its chemical or physical condition for growing plants or to improve its capacity to hold water.)
    • At this time, the FDA does not object to farmers complying with the USDA’s National Organic Program standards, which call for a 120-day interval between the application of raw manure for crops in contact with the soil and 90 days for crops not in contact with the soil. The agency considers adherence to these standards a prudent step toward minimizing the likelihood of contamination while its risk assessment and research is ongoing.
    • The final rule requires that untreated biological soil amendments of animal origin, such as raw manure, must be applied in a manner that does not contact covered produce during application and minimizes the potential for contact with covered prdouce after application.
  • Stabilized Compost: Microbial standards that set limits on detectable amounts of bacteria (including Listeria monocytogenesSalmonella spp., fecal coliforms, and E. coli 0157:H7) have been established for processes used to treat biological soil amendments, including manure. The rule includes two examples of scientifically valid composting methods that meet those standards. Stabilized compost prepared using either of these methods must be applied in a manner that minimizes the potential for contact with produce during and after application.


  • The final rule includes new requirements to help prevent the contamination of sprouts, which have been frequently associated with foodborne illness outbreaks. Sprouts are especially vulnerable to dangerous microbes because of the warm, moist and nutrient-rich conditions needed to grow them.
    • Between 1996 and 2014, there were 43 outbreaks, 2,405 illnesses, and 171 hospitalizations, and 3 deaths associated with sprouts, including the first documented outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes associated with sprouts in the United States.
  • Requirements specific to sprouts include, for example:
    • Taking measures to prevent the introduction of dangerous microbes into or onto seeds or beans used for sprouting, in addition to treating seeds or beans that will be used for sprouting (or relying on prior treatment by the seed/bean grower, distributor, or supplier with appropriate documentation).
    • Testing of spent sprout irrigation water from each production batch of sprouts, or in-process sprouts from each production batch, for certain pathogens. Sprouts cannot be allowed to enter commerce until it is ascertained that these required pathogen test results are negative.
    • Testing the growing, harvesting, packing and holding environment for the presence of Listeria species or Listeria monocytogenes.
    • Taking corrective actions if spent sprout irrigation water, sprouts, and/or an environmental sample tests positive.
  • Sprout operations will have less time to come into compliance with the rule than farms growing other produce. They will have one to three years to comply based on the size of their operation, with no additional time to meet the water requirements.

Domesticated and Wild Animals

  • The rule addresses concerns about the feasibility of compliance for farms that rely on grazing animals (such as livestock) or working animals for various purposes. It establishes the same standards for these animals as it does for intrusion by wild animals (such as deer or feral swine). Farmers are required to take all measures reasonably necessary to identify and not harvest produce that is likely to be contaminated.
    • At a minimum, this requires all covered farms to visually examine the growing area and all covered produce to be harvested, regardless of the harvest method used.
    • In addition, under certain circumstances the rule requires farms to do additional assessment during the growing season, and if significant evidence of potential contamination by animals is found, to take measures reasonably necessary to assist later during harvest. Such measures might include, for example, placing flags outlining the affected area.
  • Although the final rule does not require establishing waiting periods between grazing and harvest, the FDA encourages farmers to voluntarily consider applying such intervals as appropriate for the farm’s commodities and practices. The agency will consider providing guidance on this practice in the future, as needed.
  • As was stated in the supplemental notice, farms are not required to exclude animals from outdoor growing areas, destroy animal habitat, or clear borders around growing or drainage areas. Nothing in the rule should be interpreted as requiring or encouraging such actions.

Worker Training and Health and Hygiene

  • Requirements for health and hygiene include:
    • Taking measures to prevent contamination of produce and food-contact surfaces by ill or infected persons, for example, instructing personnel to notify their supervisors if they may have a health condition that may result in contamination of covered produce or food contact surfaces.
    • Using hygienic practices when handling (contacting) covered produce or food-contact surfaces, for example, washing and drying hands thoroughly at certain times such as after using the toilet.
    • Taking measures to prevent visitors from contaminating covered produce and/or food-contact surfaces, for example, by making toilet and hand-washing facilities accessible to visitors.
  • Farm workers who handle covered produce and/or food-contact surfaces, and their supervisors, must be trained on certain topics, including the importance of health and hygiene.
  • Farm workers who handle covered produce and/or food contact surfaces, and their supervisors, are also required to have a combination of training, education and experience necessary to perform their assigned responsibilities. This could include training (such as training provided on the job), in combination with education, or experience (e.g., work experience related to current assigned duties).

Equipment, Tools and Buildings

  • The rule establishes standards related to equipment, tools and buildings to prevent these sources, and inadequate sanitation, from contaminating produce. This section of the rulecovers, for example, greenhouses, germination chambers, and other such structures, as well as toilet and hand-washing facilities.
  • Required measures to prevent contamination of covered produce and food contact surfaces include, for example, appropriate storage, maintenance and cleaning of equipment and tools.


The rule does not apply to:

  • Produce that is not a raw agricultural commodity. (A raw agricultural commodity is any food in its raw or natural state)
  • The following produce commodities that FDA has identified as rarely consumed raw: asparagus; black beans, great Northern beans, kidney beans, lima beans, navy beans, and pinto beans; garden beets (roots and tops) and sugar beets; cashews; sour cherries; chickpeas; cocoa beans; coffee beans; collards; sweet corn; cranberries; dates; dill (seeds and weed); eggplants; figs; horseradish; hazelnuts; lentils; okra; peanuts; pecans; peppermint; potatoes; pumpkins; winter squash; sweet potatoes; and water chestnuts
  • Food grains, including barley, dent- or flint-corn, sorghum, oats, rice, rye, wheat, amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, and oilseeds (e.g. cotton seed, flax seed, rapeseed, soybean, and sunflower seed)
  • Produce that is used for personal or on-farm consumption
  • Farms that have an average annual value of produce sold during the previous three-year period of $25,000 or less

The rule provides an exemption for produce that receives commercial processing that adequately reduces the presence of microorganisms of public health significance, under certain conditions.

The rule also provides a qualified exemption and modified requirements for certain farms.

  • To be eligible for a qualified exemption, the farm must meet two requirements:
    • The farm must have food sales averaging less than $500,000 per year during the previous three years; and
    • The farm’s sales to qualified end-users must exceed sales to all others combined during the previous three years. A qualified end-user is either (a) the consumer of the food or (b) a restaurant or retail food establishment that is located in the same state or the same Indian reservation as the farm or not more than 275 miles away.
  • A farm with the qualified exemption must still meet certain modified requirements, including disclosing the name and the complete business address of the farm where the produce was grown either on the label of the produce or at the point of purchase. These farms are also required to establish and keep certain documentation.
  • A farm’s qualified exemption may be withdrawn as follows:
    • If there is an active investigation of an outbreak of foodborne illness that is directly linked to the farm, or
    • If FDA determines it is necessary to protect the public health and prevent or mitigate an outbreak based on conduct or conditions associated with the farm that are material to the safety of the farm’s produce that would be covered by the rule.
  • Before FDA issues an order to withdraw a qualified exemption, the agency:
    • May consider one or more other actions to protect public health, including a warning letter, recall, administrative detention, refusal of food offered for import, seizure and injunction.
    • Must notify the owner, operator, or agent in charge of the farm, in writing, of the circumstances that may lead FDA to withdraw the exemption, provide an opportunity for response within 15 calendar days of receipt of the notification, and consider actions taken by the farm to address the issues raised by the agency.
  • A withdrawn exemption may be reinstated if (as applicable):
    • The FDA determines that the outbreak was not directly linked to the farm, and/or
    • The FDA determines that the problems with conduct or conditions material to the safety of the food produced or harvested at the farm have been adequately resolved, and continued withdrawal of the exemption is not necessary to protect public health or prevent or mitigate an outbreak of foodborne illness.


The rule also permits states, tribes, or foreign countries from which food is imported into the U.S. to submit a petition, along with supporting information, to FDA requesting a variance(s) from one or more of the requirements of this rule.

  • The rule enables a state, tribe, or country, if it concludes that meeting one or more of the rule’s requirements would be problematic in light of local growing conditions, to request variances to those requirements. The state, tribe, or foreign country must demonstrate that the requested variance is reasonably likely to ensure that the produce is not adulterated and provides the same level of public health protection as the corresponding requirement(s) in the rule.
  • The final rule makes it clear that federally recognized tribes may submit a variance petition.
  • The request for a variance must be submitted by a competent authority, meaning a person or organization that is the regulatory authority for food safety for the state, tribe, or foreign country.
  • A foreign government does not need to have a systems recognition arrangement or equivalence agreement with the FDA to obtain a variance.
  • The variance request must include relevant and scientifically valid information specific to the produce or activity. Information could relate to crops, climate, soil, geography or environment, as well as the practices of that particular region.
  • Examples of types of variances that may be granted include a variance from the agricultural water microbial quality criteria for water used during growing covered produce (other than sprouts) using a direct water application method, a variance from the microbial die-off rate used to determine the time interval between the last irrigation and harvest and/or the accompanying maximum time interval; and a variance from the approach or frequency for water testing for water uses subject to the rule’s microbial quality criteria.

Compliance Dates

Compliance dates for covered activities, except for those involving sprouts, after the effective date of the final rule are:

  • Very small businesses, those with more than $25,000 but no more than $250,000 in average annual produce sales during the previous three year period : four years
  • Small businesses, those with more than $250,000 but no more than $500,000 in average annual produce sales during the previous three year period: three years
  • All other farms: two years
  • The compliance dates for certain aspects of the water quality standards, and related testing and recordkeeping provisions, allow an additional two years beyond each of these compliance dates for the rest of the final rule

Compliance dates for modified requirements for farms eligible for a qualified exemption are:

  • For labeling requirement (if applicable): January 1, 2020
  • For retention of records supporting eligibility for a qualified exemption: Effective date of the final rule
  • For all other modified requirements:
    • Very small businesses, four years after the effective date of the final rule
    • Small businesses, three years after the effective date of the final rule

Compliance dates for covered activities involving sprouts after the effective date of the final rule are:

  • Very small businesses: three years
  • Small businesses: two years
  • All other farms: one year

For more information, see Compliance Date Extensions and Clarifications for FSMA Final Rules.


About THOR Feed & ThroughPoint Solutions, Inc.

THOR Feed® is a risk mitigation and inventory software available in Android®, iOS® and Windows® applications.   THOR Feed is wholly owned by ThroughPoint’ Solutions, Inc.  Our team and system  taps into over 27 years’ experience helping people identify and mitigate risk and build trust.  ThroughPoint Solutions is based in Gilbert, AZ and was founded in 2014.

If you would like more information about this topic, please contact Jim Watkinson at ThroughPoint Solutions or email at Info@throughpoint.net.

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