Secretary Perdue examines hurricane map USDA Photo by Preston Keres
U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue sits with members of his sub-cabinet to discuss the efforts and assistance to those impacted by Hurricane Harvey, Aug. 28, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

FDA not issuing ban on food crops following hurricanes

USDA secretary and FDA commissioner visit hurricane-stricken farms in aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Harvey.

Hurricanes, floods and power outages may have lingering and potentially hazardous public health impacts on grain and vegetable crops as well as food manufacturing facilities, food warehouses and food transporters. New guidance offered by the Food & Drug Administration provides insight to farmers whose crops are in areas affected by Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma.

FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement that FDA has been in close discussion with farmers, consumer representatives and state officials regarding concerns about how crops may be affected by the two Category 4 hurricane storms, which hit the U.S. back to back.

“I want to make it clear that the FDA has not issued a ban on rice or any other food crops. Rice grown in normal conditions and rice that has not been exposed to contaminated floodwaters from the recent hurricanes may enter commerce,” Gottlieb said. "Also, rice and other crops that were harvested and stored safely before storms hit should not be considered impacted by these events.”

Under an original statement FDA issued following the storms, it was unclear whether any crops in those areas would be accepted for use in human or animal food.

"The original guidance created a bit of confusion, and growers have been waiting for some clarifications," said Lydia Holmes, manager of regulatory affairs for USA Rice. "We've been working tirelessly with (the U.S. Department of Agriculture), FDA and the Texas Department of Agriculture, Texas A&M (University) and other state agencies, as well as the Texas congressional delegation.”

The FDA commissioner said he recognizes that crops have been and will continue to be affected by these storms in a variety of ways. “There have been substantial crop losses from both storms,” Gottlieb said. "Crops may be submerged in flood water, exposed to contaminants or susceptible to mold. Some of the major concerns for crop safety are heavy metals, chemical, bacterial and mold contamination.”

Gottlieb added, "In many cases, it is challenging to determine what contaminants are in crops that were submerged by floodwaters. Both human and animal food must meet well-established safety requirements. FDA has experts that are working closely with state regulators and directly with producers to address questions and concerns."

Before being used in animal food, crops exposed to the flooding should, at a minimum, be tested for mold, bacteria and heavy metal contamination, FDA said.

The Texas Office of the State Chemist is offering testing services at no cost to producers of cereal grains and oilseeds in the state (including tests for mycotoxin, heavy metals and microbiology). To ask a question or to submit samples for testing, contact the Office of the Texas State Chemist at (979) 845-1121.

FDA said, in general, if the edible portion of a crop is exposed to contaminated flood waters, it is considered “adulterated” under the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act and should not enter the human food supply. This is because there are no practical methods of reconditioning, or processing, these edible portions. Reconditioning is acceptable only when it can provide a reasonable assurance of food safety.

For crops that were in or near flooded areas but flood waters did NOT contact the edible portions of the crops, the growers should evaluate the safety of the crops for human consumption on a case-by-case basis for possible food safety concerns.

As information becomes available regarding conditions near flooded crops, it may be appropriate for producers to consider additional testing (for example, for a specific chemical, industrial or environmental contaminant) to ensure the safety of their products for use in animal food.

Farm visits

Gottlieb had the opportunity to tour farms and packing facilities in Georgia, which he said reminded him of how farms differ from other entities FDA regulates.

“Farms are not just a place of business; many are homes,” Gottlieb said. “Most farms have been in families for generations. As a result, the impact of floods on farms and farmers is especially concerning to me. It has hit many farmers hard, destroying their homes and their livelihoods.”

Although FDA’s primary mission is to protect and promote public health, more is at stake. “We recognize there are hard questions that must be quickly answered about crops affected by these storms, or else crops that might be safe -- because they were not exposed to contaminated floodwaters -- could age past their point of use,” Gottlieb said. “We recognize the tremendous impact this storm had on region’s farming families. We’re working diligently to provide them with timely guidance. My staff and I are committed to doing our part to help farmers get back to work.”

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue also scheduled visits to tour hurricane damage. He was invited to Georgia by agriculture commissioner Gary Black, to Florida by agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam and to Texas by agriculture commissioner Sid Miller. Perdue was in Georgia Friday to tour three different farms in the state. He plans to visit Florida on Monday and Texas on Thursday and Friday.

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