Federal and state agriculture officials will be in Brattleboro Monday to talk about new federal food safety rules.
The final rules of the Food Safety Modernization Act -- implemented by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration -- were released last month. Some Vermont farmers and food producers will have to make changes to meet the new federal standards.
The meeting at the Latchis Theater Monday is to give farmers, food producers and state officials a chance to ask questions about the new federal food safety rules.
The rules mark a change in how the federal government regulates the produce industry, and for the first time sets federal standards for growing fruits and vegetables, and for processing food.
Kristina Sweet, the produce safety coordinator at the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, says the meeting Monday is an opportunity to get clarification on the rules.
And she says the state will be working with farmers and food processors to make sure everyone understands the new expectations.
"The bottom line is that FSMA is here," Sweet says. "We're going to be working with farmers and producers throughout the state to help implement the law and collaborate with FDA on implementation of the law in order to make the process as practical as possible."
The new law was written to cut down on food-borne illness such as listeria and salmonella, which have been linked to the consumption of raw produce and processed foods.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that about 48 million, or one-in-six, Americans get sick from foodborne diseases each year, and of those who get sick, 3,000 die.
Sweet says the state does not have an accurate count on the number of farms selling produce, either directly to consumers, or to co-ops, markets or wholesalers.
She estimates that between 1,000 and 1,200 Vermont farms grow produce covered under the Produce Safety Rule.
Of these farms, it's likely that at least 40 percent will be exempt, and another 45 to 50 percent will be able to apply for exemption.
About 15 percent of the state's farmers will have to comply with the new food safety rules.
"We're expecting between 150 and 200 farms will undergo inspections under the rule," Sweet says.
President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011 and the FDA has been collecting input and revising the rules over the past four years.
Over the past few years FDA held meetings around the country and heard from farmers who were concerned with onerous expectations around water testing, staff training, manure spreading and indoor processing areas.
The FDA held regional meetings in 2013 to gather input on the draft rules and more than 100 people attended a meeting in Hanover.
Small farmers said it would be too expensive to test their water, as the proposed regulations required, and organic farmers were worried about rules that could have limited when and how they applied manure
In the end smaller farms were relieved from the rules, and Sweet says mid-sized operations up to $500,000 in annual sales are allowed to ask for an exemption.
"I think the federal government did definitely hear the concerns, and took those concerns in to consideration," she says.
The new rules could create unexpected confusion on the retail level, according to Sweet.
Store owners could be looking for federal verification from small farmers, even though they are exempt, and Sweet says the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets will also be reaching out to the public and store owners to make sure everyone understands the food safety rules.
Omar Oyarzabal a food safety specialist at UVM Extension, says most food processors are already following food safety guidelines.
But he says clarifying national food safety laws can help cut down on food-borne diseases.
"There are for sure things that are preventable, that keeps coming, and keeps re-occurring, and if we can prevent those things in better ways we may be able to better control some of the food safety issues," says Oyarzabal. "I do believe it's going to have more impact in things that are more preventable."
Sweet says it's still unclear how often farmers will be expected to test their water, and how the state agriculture agency will work with the federal government to enforce the new food safety rules.
The all-day meeting in Brattleboro Monday will give state officials a chance to clarify the issues.