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Spring 2023 FSMA Update: Current Information about Agricultural Water for Produce Growers

Annalisa Hultberg, Extension Educator, food safety

The Produce Safety Rule is part of the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) that applies to some farms in Minnesota. Since the law has been finalized,  updates and changes have been made that relate to water you use on your farm. If you have attended a training previously and wonder what has been updated since then, here is a summary of the updates to date.

First, this rule only applies to some farms. To determine your status under the PSR, see this website. 

Second, the rules about agricultural water only apply to water that is being used on covered commodities and that is likely or intended to touch the harvestable portion of the crop or food contact surfaces. 

As a reminder, water is broken into both pre and post-harvest water for the purposes of the FSMA Rule.

Pre-Harvest, or Irrigation water standards have had significant updates since 2015

  • Definition: Pre-harvest water is water used prior to harvest, generally for irrigation purposes or for crop protection
  • If you recall from the initial curriculum, the 2015 (original) rule for pre-harvest water required growers to test their agricultural water for generic E. coli and to create a Microbial Water Quality Profile, or MWQP with those results. This was seen as cumbersome and too technically difficult for some growers.
  • In December 2021, the FDA released proposed revisions to the pre-harvest agricultural water requirements substantially to move away from the quantitative criteria and towards a more qualitative assessment of the water.
  • The revised rule will likely ask growers to conduct a Agricultural Water Assessment instead of relying on testing the water. Testing might be a part of the AgWA, but the AgWA will be a more holistic assessment of risks to water used on the farm including risks from nearby septics, animal operations, faulty wells and other infrastructure, and will not necessarily include testing as a part of that assessment.

When will the changes to this part of the rule be effective? Since the final text has not yet been published, we have no further information about the effective date for the requirements in the revised pre-harvest water requirements. The compliance dates for this section will likely begin 9 months after the revised rule is finalized. We will let you know as soon as FDA releases the final requirements for this section.

Where does this leave growers now? For now, if you have not started to test the water that you use on your farm, we recommend that you do that. 

For more information on testing water on your farm.

For more information on the proposed updates to the pre-harvest water standards

Harvest and Postharvest water standards

Harvest and postharvest water, unlike pre-harvest water, is not up for revision and is the same as it was from the 2015 initial rule. 

Definition Postharvest is agricultural water that is used during or after harvest, including for handwashing, washing produce, and cleaning surfaces. 

Here is what you need to know about what will be required for postharvest water. 

  1. Determine the initial quality of agricultural water used during and after harvest (record required). Water used for this purpose must have no detectable generic E. coli per 100 ml sample and you must document this via testing. This is the same as the drinking water standard, and you cannot use untreated surface water like ponds or rivers for this use.

  2. Conduct an annual inspection of the agricultural water system (record required). A water system system inspection includes the source of the water and the distribution system. Look for ways that your system can allow for contamination, such as testing backflow prevention, checking for malfunctioning or leaky joints or pipes or noting changes to land use like grazing animals that might affect your water quality.

  3. Establish water-change schedules for recirculated water to maintain its safety and minimize the potential for contamination with pathogens (no record required.) Think of your dunk tank with greens. Water that comes into contact with produce over time has to be managed to maintain sanitary quality. There are several options for maintaining quality; one of those options is to have a water change schedule. You can determine what that schedule looks like, but you should change your water used to wash produce based on some metrics of cleanliness, crops, time or a combination. The goal is to create a risk reduction system that gives you and your customers confidence that you’re reducing food safety risks.

  4. Visually monitor the quality of water for buildup of organic materials, such as soil and plant debris. (no record required). Turbidity or cloudiness in recirculated water or dunk tank water is one sign that water quality has decreased. In general, when there is organic debris in dunk water, it might be more likely that there is fecal contamination. Organic load in the water can also interfere with chemical treatments, for farms that choose to treat the water with a sanitizer. You can use things like a Secci disk or turbidity tube to monitor turbidity. Here is more information on those methods from MSU, and this website from UMN.

  5. Maintaining quality of water through use of sanitizer or other antimicrobial pesticides. One good way to reduce the risks when using a dunk tank or recirculated batch water to wash your produce is to use a sanitizer approved for use in fruit and vegetable processing water. You are not required under the FSMA PSR to use a sanitizer in your wash water, but it is recommended and reduces risk from cross contamination in the water. If you use a sanitizer in the water, a record of water treatment monitoring is required for the farm records.
    For more information on using sanitizer and keeping your wash water clean and safe, see this post.

  6. Reducing risk to produce safety due to infiltration of water carrying pathogens (no record required.) Water can get into produce by a process called infiltration, and carry hazards (such as pathogens) with it. The amount of infiltration into some produce depends on the temperature difference between the produce and the water, the depth of submergence, and the amount of time the produce is submerged. Maintain and monitor the temperature of water to minimize the potential for infiltration of pathogens into covered produce. 

When will this part of the rule be effective? 

The harvest and post-harvest water requirements will become effective on the following dates:

  • January 26, 2023, for all other businesses (more than $500,000 average annual produce sales)
  • January 26, 2024, for small businesses ($250,000 to $500,000 average annual produce sales
  • January 26, 2025, for very small businesses (less than $250,000 average annual produce sales

However, the FDA has indicated that during the first year the water - related portion of an inspection should be educational, so expect the inspector to ask you questions about your system and to help you develop your ability to understand and comply with the regulations.

Where does this leave growers now? Learn about, and refresh your knowledge of the requirements of the FSMA Produce Safety Rule regarding postharvest water. Get your water tested for generic E. coli if you have not. If you have not attended a FSMA or GAPs training, plan to attend one so that you can learn about best practices to reduce risks and keep your fresh produce safe and wholesome. 

Learn more about the FSMA inspection process and your status under the FSMA PSR here from the MDA Produce Safety Program

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