Produce industry experts say there are no big surprises in the proposed rules for food safety. However, they do say that they are surprised by the exemption of an estimated 79 percent of growers.
There are estimated to be 190,111 U.S. farms that grow produce (including 475 that grow sprouts), according to an impact analysis study conducted by FDA. Of these farms, an estimated 149,561, or nearly 79 percent, will not be covered by the produce rule because they grow products that are rarely consumed raw, make under $25,000 annually or qualify for a small farm exemption.
The FDA estimates that only 40,211 produce farms and 285 sprout farms are fully covered and would have to "implement all of the standards outlined in the proposed rule." Extrapolating from FDA's calculations, these farms likely produce about 85 percent of the produce responsible for causing foodborne illnesses.
Produce Marketing Association lobbyist Tom O'Brien said he thinks the scope of the exemptions will become "more controversial" as people realize just how widely they will apply.
While the vast majority of farms will likely be exempt from the rule when it takes effect, which will happen in a few years, the FDA estimated there will be significant costs and benefits to the entire marketplace.
The economic and public health benefits of the proposed rule are estimated to outweigh the costs, which are significant for produce growers. The FDA estimates that the proposed rule would cost the domestic produce industry about $460 million per year. Including the costs to foreign growers, that number rises to around $630 million. The average cost per farm is $11,430, but the costs are estimated to be quite different based on size.
The FDA estimates that the initial average cost for complying with the proposed rule for small farms would be $20,470; for large farms it would be $38,133. The average recurring costs to industry, the agency estimates, would be $10,507 for small farms and $24,401 for large.
Even farms that are exempt would incur some costs for learning the contents of the rule and figuring out which parts may or may not apply to them. For example, if a farm qualifies for an exemption because they grow potatoes or because they grow tomatoes that are primarily processed into canned tomato sauce, it would still need to keep documentation on which company received its product.
FDA estimates that the rule, if implemented correctly, would reduce the human health burden associated with produce by nearly 65 percent, which comes to about $1.04 billion. Compared to the estimated costs to industry, the net benefit is expected to be about $576 million annually.