Educate, communicate, leverage, connect and align. These words have something in common: They reflect action.

When regulatory dockets are open for comment, the industry tends to be hyper-engaged. But comment periods are historically followed by inaction.

This is especially true in the history of agricultural water requirements in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule (PSR). Each iteration of the water requirements resulted in a flurry of activity, followed by lengthy periods of dormancy until the next outbreak report concluding that ag water was a factor or announcement of new Food and Drug Administration rulemaking.

Despite 10-plus years of regulatory uncertainty, the industry needs to maintain momentum around agricultural water, regardless of a final rule being issued.

After the enactment of FSMA in 2011, FDA proposed the PSR in 2013, making significant revisions to the agricultural water requirements before issuing the final rule in 2015. But it quickly became clear that FDA had missed the mark. In 2017, FDA announced the extension of compliance dates for agricultural water, then used enforcement discretion until revised requirements could be put forth that were more workable for the produce industry and more meaningful from a public health standpoint. That proposed revision was published in December 2021.

Navigating the complex landscape of agricultural water sources, application methods and environmental microbiology to address the diversity of produce production across the United States and the world (given that half of our fresh produce is imported) is a vast undertaking and has contributed to some of these delays. It is not the produce industry’s character to sit back and let regulations drive practices. As evidenced by the most recent proposed revisions, the responsibility of managing ag water will rest on the shoulders of growers anyway.

The good news is that the proposed revision takes a more holistic, systems approach that provides flexibility for each grower. Enter the agricultural water assessment (AgWA), which moves away from the one-size-fits-all standard based on test results originally proposed through the development of the Microbial Water Quality Profile (MWQP). The holistic approach is preferred by many in the industry.

However, testing is not dead. A common misconception is that growers didn’t want to test. Many pushed back against the MWQP because it was expensive, not adaptable and lacked scientific validation that raised questions about whether prescriptive testing requirements would result in safe water. The newly proposed rule allows the grower to decide if they will test as part of their AgWA and, to some extent, how much testing to do.

Test data can be extremely valuable but must be paired with risk-based thinking; generic E. coli (or alternate) is no longer a stand-alone metric for success.

Testing is not new to growers already adhering to marketing agreements or third-party audits. However, this new AgWA approach requires a skill set that few possess in the produce industry. The proposed revision effectively asks growers to evaluate complex characteristics with expert- level knowledge of microbiology, plant and wildlife biology, engineering and meteorology.

Although it might be months or even years until agricultural water requirements are finalized, growers should not wait. As public health advocates and industry professionals, we need to remain focused on safe produce — not rules — by keeping momentum on agricultural water education and outreach efforts. We can take action now by doing the following.

  • Educating growers on the foundational principles of conducting an effective risk assessment.
  • Communicating and providing access to peer-reviewed literature, which can support implementation of risk-based practices in a meaningful way at the farm level.
  • Leveraging existing data on agricultural water through collaboration with irrigation districts, watershed managers and agencies (such as the Environmental Protection Agency or U.S. Geological Survey).
  • Connecting communities and the agricultural sector to convey that produce safety is a shared responsibility and help communities identify and address potential risks to agricultural water from neighboring land use.
  • Aligning inspection approaches to reduce subjectivity and train both inspectors and growers with the same methodology to achieve a shared understanding of agricultural water assessments and compliance.