Cornell Food Systems Global Summit

Consensus building key to creating good agricultural practices to meet FSMA’s proposed produce rule

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Consensus building key to compliance with proposed FSMA produce rule

Related tags: Agriculture

The Produce Safety Alliance, spearheaded by Cornell University and funded by FDA and USDA, is “on the cusp” of releasing a national good agricultural practices educational curriculum to meet the grower training requirement of the Food Safety Modernization Act’s proposed produce rule, according to Betsy Bihn, the project director of the alliance. 

Working against a tentative effective date of the summer of 2015 for the proposed produce rule, the Alliance in April 2011 cast a wide net to bring together as many as possible farmers, produce industry professionals, researchers, extension educators and government personnel to create the Produce Safety On-Farm Preventive Controls Training curriculum, Bihn said. According to a draft​, the curriculum includes six modules covering everything from workers’ health and hygiene to animal and water preventive controls, as well as how to develop a farm food safety plan. 

She explained at the Cornell Food Systems Global Summit Dec. 8 that the Alliance might not have succeeded in creating such a robust, comprehensive curriculum had it not taken a consensus building approach to creating the good agricultural practices. She noted consensus building was the best production model to use even though it was “a big, complex, time consuming exercise,”​ because the Alliance wanted the safety practices to be based on the best information, scientific knowledge and in-the-field experience.

The Alliance also chose to use the consensus building model and to “let anyone in the room who was interested”​ to increase transparency in the standards creation as a preemptive offense move, Bihn said.

Being transparent and building consensus for potentially controversial regulatory changes “is less likely to create opposition”​ to the final outcome and is a way to “take care of those people who will actively work against you,”​ she said.

She explained that increasing transparency and participation is essential to the Alliance’s success because “people have more confidence in stuff they feel like they were a part of or recognize themselves in.”

With this in mind, the Alliance created 10 working committees with 178 members who represented interests nationwide. The members discussed challenge and solutions to implementing good agricultural practices over the phone instead of at live or online meetings to ensure that everyone could participate, including those who did not use the Internet, Bihn said. She added they placed special emphasis on small scale farming in their discussions.

Overcoming challenges

While consensus building creates a “more robust program​,” it is not always an easy process, Bihn said. She noted that despite “calling and begging”​ people to participate, some states did not have representatives and of those that did, participation at times was sporadic. She also noted that even after a year and a half of meetings and active outreach, many people were still unaware of the curriculum development process and missed the opportunity to participate.

Despite these shortcoming, she considers consensus building a successful approach that should be used in the future when implementing large-scale regulatory changes or even facilitating regulatory compliance on a smaller scale within an individual company.

She recommended if using consensus building that leaders commit to it fully and financially because an underfunded program likely will not garner complete consensus. She also recommended leaders:

  • Brace for complications​ – Consensus building “requires working with people who have different points of view, expertise and communication methods,”​ and leaders will need to bridge those differences.
  • Dedicate sufficient time to the process​ – Scheduling can be a nightmare, Bihn said. But leaders should encourage participants to compromise and make time in their schedules to meet.
  • Be open and not defensive​ – Bihn notes that large groups often have extreme differences and interests and will not always support initial suggestions. The rejection should not be taken personally, she said, adding the facilitator should not be a defensive person.
  • Stay on topic and target ​– The objectives must be clear and establishing milestones can help people remain focused on the long term goal.
  • Control human nature ​– “You are going to have the dude who talks all the time and the person who knows a lot, but won’t say much. And you have to manage them”​ so that everyone’s voice is heard to avoid a “frustration implosion,”​ Bihn said.

Read more about the proposed produce rule HERE​. 

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