The Produce Safety Rule: Implications Differ for Small Producers


Shortly after I moved to Bozeman I toured Root Cellar Foods, a processing and distribution facility for locally grown organic produce. Root Cellar Foods cleans, chops, shreds, slices, and packages fresh produce from local farms and delivers to large-scale consumers including local grocery stores, restaurants, and Montana State University’s dining halls. The majority of these products are eaten raw, meaning that safe production and handling is essential at all stages of production–including on-farm. The Produce Safety Rule, part of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) of 2011 and being phased into implementation beginning in 2018, requires on-farm produce handling, holding, and packing operations to abide by stricter food safety standards than in the past.* Fruit and vegetable producers need to know whether they are accountable to the new regulations and how to comply.

The Produce Safety Rule applies to fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, sprouts, peanuts, tree nuts, and herbs but not grains such as barley, oats, rice, wheat, and oilseeds. It also excludes a number of products that are not typically eaten raw, such as sugar beets, sour cherries, chickpeas, lentils, peppermint, potatoes, and a number of other products that can be found on the FDA website. Very small farms, with less than $25,000 in average annual produce gross sales (based on the previous three years of production, adjusted for inflation) are exempt. Farms that grow produce that will be processed so as to eliminate microorganisms are also exempt. There are qualified exemptions that modify regulations. Operations with qualified exemptions include those with a majority of sales in the local region (farms with at least 50 percent of sales to customers in the same state, customers within the same Indian reservation, or customers within 275 miles of the farm). If farms sell to local intermediaries that sell the goods outside of the local region, these farms do not receive a qualified exemption.

The Produce Safety Rule is being phased in according to farm size. Large farms (over $500,000 in average annual produce sales) are accountable now and are required to comply with new water requirements by 2022. Small farms ($250,000-$500,000 in average annual produce sales) will be held accountable in 2019 and accountable to water requirements by 2023. Very small farms ($25,000-$250,000 in average annual produce sales) will be held accountable in 2020 and accountable to water requirements by 2024.

Complying with the new regulations will be costlier for small farms since up-front costs are amortized over a smaller quantity of production. Nevertheless, surveys suggest that many farms across the nation already use practices that comply with the new rules. A recent ERS report estimates that the cost of compliance as a share of fruit and vegetable production revenue is 2.88 percent for Montana. This is a higher share than for most states, likely because fresh produce farms in Montana tend to be smaller-scale.


*Note that this is a correction to original phrasing that may have caused confusion. New regulations for handling fresh fruits and vegetables on-farm are distinct from those that apply to food processing facilities such as Root Cellar Foods.

Additional Sources:

Astill, Gregory, Travis Minor, Linda Calvin, and Suzanne Thornsbury. August 2018. “Before Implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act’s Produce Rule: A Survey of U.S. Produce Growers.” USDA ERS Economic Information Bulletin Number 194.

Bovay, John, Peyton Ferrier, and Chen Zhen. August 2018. “Estimated Costs for Fruit and Vegetable Producers to Comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act’s Produce Rule.” USDA ERS Economic Information Bulletin Number 195.

Ribera, Luis A. and Ronald D. Knutson. 2011. “The FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act and Its Economic Implications.” Choices.26(4).

(Photo by ClatieK is licensed under CC BY 4.0)


About Author

Diane Charlton

Diane Charlton is an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics at Montana State University. She received her Ph.D. in agricultural economics from the University of California, Davis. She has done research on agricultural labor markets in Mexico and the United States along with researching the determinants of migration. She never tires of talking about agriculture with her sister and brother-in-law from their almond orchard in the Central Valley of California, and she is looking forward to learning more about and researching agricultural production in Montana and the northern Great Plains.

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