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New food safety rules apply to bulk grains

Amy Mayer
Harvest Public Media

New food safety regulations are about to be announced by the Food and Drug Administration. These regulations—covering everything from sanitation to record-keeping—are part of the Food Safety and Modernization Act, which became law two years ago. While the produce and meat industries get the lion’s share of attention, commodity grains now fall under the FDA’s watch.

The law, passed in 2011, brings the 10,000 grain elevators and thousands of feed processors across the countryinto the food system for regulatory purposes. That could mean big changes for operations that use a lot of grain like animal feed companies and grain elevators.

On a recent day at DFS Animal Nutrition in Newell, Iowa, Sam Putnam dumped a corn sample from a waiting truck into a machine that measures its moisture. The driver awaited her approval and then moved on to dump his grain. The machine is one of the many measures the company has in place to monitor its product, said Leland McKinney, the company’s director of quality management systems.

“Making sure that you have a quality product goes parallel with the safety,” McKinney said.

Some expect implementation of the new standards will entail costly procedures and extensive reports. But McKinney says a grain elevator or mill that’s using rigid quality controls and keeping good records shouldn’t be intimidated.

Inside the company’s North Mill, McKinney likened the process of making animal feed to baking a cake. You start with the dry ingredients—imagine corn as the flour of this “cake”. The plant has a series of conveyors that bring in the minor ingredients and McKinney explained that everything is weighed to precise quantities before being combined. Minor ingredients—the baking soda or salt in a cake—might be vitamins or medicine.

“All of those get weighed out and then brought together in your mixer,” McKinney said.

The huge green metal mixer could easily swallow up your Kitchen Aid. It holds six tons. Liquid ingredients such as fat are then added via overhead pipes. The mixture is heated, made into pellets and then dried and cooled. Mill workers oversee each step from a windowed command room with five computer monitors.

Each hour, the DFS mill can produce 90-100 tons of feed for swine and turkeys.

Medicated feed processors, like DFS, have already been subject to federal food safety inspections. But the new law means inspectors now will visit grain operations of all kinds. Iowa State University professor Gretchen Mosher says workers at grain elevators often don’t see the mounds of corn around them the same way the law does.

“They just don’t think of it as food, either human or animal,” Mosher said. “And so they just see things that they’re used to seeing – you know, oil dripping down in the pit and rats, dead rats, etcetera, lying around.”

Yes, rats, because where there’s grain there will be rodents. Until now, they’ve been viewed largely as a threat to profit—they eat the grain—not safety. Grain elevators already have pest management plans. But now, an inspector might ask to see receipts from the pest control company’s past visits.

It’s worth noting that bulk grains have a solid safety record. The new rules are not a response to problems, Mosher said. Rather, they’re an effort at defining the food system holistically. Mosher says her research shows that more meticulous record-keeping can improve product and increase profit.

“When you manage the quality of the product better, you can see a fairly significant return on your investment, almost a 2-to-1 return,” she said.

System-wide, Food Safety and Modernization Act cost estimates are significant. The National Grain and Feed Association’s David Fairfield says he has heard $1-2 billion for human food facilities and $100-200 million dollars for animal feed. For smaller operators or places that don’t already have sufficient systems in place, the cost of complying could shut them down.

“There’s no question that increased regulations are one driver for consolidation,” Fairfield said.

And failing to comply now has consequences: under the new law, FDA inspectors have the authority to impose fines. That’s something they haven’t had before, and it means the Food Safety Act is not only broader but also stronger than older food regulations.

The new rules are expected to be implemented in the second half of 2013 after a public comment period. Consumers won’t likely notice any changes. But the impact on grain handlers may depend largely on how prepared they are.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.