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Sep 19, 11:09 AM EDT

FDA tweaks food safety rules due next year


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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government said Friday it will rewrite sweeping new food safety rules after farmers complained that earlier proposals could hurt business.

New proposals by the Food and Drug Administration would make it easier for farmers to meet water quality standards and allow farmers to harvest crops sooner after using raw manure as fertilizer.

The FDA proposed the revised rules Friday, and the final rules are due next fall. The FDA has been haggling over how to write them for four years since Congress passed a food safety law in 2010. Regulators say it has been a challenge to balance the need for tighter food safety standards in the wake of major outbreaks in spinach, eggs, peanuts and cantaloupe along with the needs of farmers who are new to such regulations.

Michael Taylor, FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, says the agency is trying to "achieve the goal of food safety in a practical way" and says the rules are new terrain for the agency.

The rules proposed last year would require farmers to take new precautions against contamination, making sure workers' hands are washed, irrigation water is clean and that animals stay out of fields, among other things. Food manufacturers would also have to submit food safety plans to the government to show they are keeping their operations clean. Those changes would in many cases require new equipment, paperwork and record-keeping.

None of those priorities would change in the revised rule. But after complaints from farmers big and small who said the rules were too burdensome, the new proposal would lower some standards for the amount of bacteria that can be found in irrigation water and reduce the frequency with which it is tested. The proposal also reduces the amount of time required between using raw manure and harvest and allows farmers to hold produce in a packing house without facing further regulations. The smallest farms would continue to be exempted from the rules.

The rules would mark the first time the FDA would have real authority to regulate food on farms. The agency said when it proposed the rules that they could cost large farms $30,000 a year.

The food safety law was passed by Congress at the end of 2010, weeks before Republicans assumed control of the House. Since then, many GOP lawmakers have said the rules are too burdensome for farmers. Some Democrats advocating for organic farmers have also been critical, saying small farms can't afford the new standards.

Supporters have said the new laws are needed after several high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks. While many farmers and food manufacturers already follow good food safety practices, the law would aim to ensure that all of them do. Government inspectors have pointed to dirty equipment, unsanitary conditions and animal feces as likely causes for salmonella, E. coli and listeria poisonings that have sickened hundreds in some of the recent outbreaks. There are an estimated 3,000 deaths a year from foodborne illness.

The rules governing produce are already somewhat tailored to make the changes easier on farmers. They would apply only to certain fruits and vegetables that pose the greatest risk, like berries, melons, leafy greens and other foods that are usually eaten raw. A farm that produces green beans that will be cooked and canned, for example, would not be regulated.

In addition to regulating farms and food manufacturing facilities, the food safety law authorized more inspections by the FDA and gave the agency additional powers to shut down facilities. The law also required stricter standards on imported foods.

The new proposal will have a 75 day comment period. The FDA is legally required to finalize the rules by next year after they were sued by an advocacy group last year for missing deadlines.

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Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mcjalonick

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