Growers should be aware of the Produce Safety Rule proposed Jan. 4 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, according to a food-safety expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

If adopted, it will establish mandatory practices that farmers must employ to prevent microbial contamination of fresh produce.

The draft regulation is far reaching, explained Luke LaBorde, professor of food science. It will address worker health and hygiene, the quality of agricultural water, biological soil amendments, the use of domesticated animals, potential contamination by wild animals and sanitation standards for equipment, tools and buildings.

LaBorde stressed some important points about the proposed rule.

"First, it covers only fresh produce that is sold commercially," he said. "It does not apply to produce used for personal consumption, such as home gardens."

The focus of the new regulation is on fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, mushrooms and sprouts that typically are eaten raw, not commodities that generally are cooked or further processed, LaBorde noted.

"For example, potatoes, eggplant, winter squash, beets and beans for drying are exempt," he said.

Not all farms that grow fresh produce will be required to comply with the rule. Farms with gross food sales under $25,000 are exempt. Farms with gross food sales over $500,000 generally are required to comply.

"Those with total sales of between $25,000 and $500,000 may or may not receive exemptions, depending on what kind of marketing channels are used," LaBorde explained. "For instance, if farmers sell more than half of their strawberry crop directly to consumers -- such as at a farmers market or farm stand -- or if they deliver it directly to a grocery store or restaurant, they are exempt from the regulation.

"However, to receive this exemption, these kinds of direct sales must be to buyers in the same state as the farm, or if out of state, no farther than 275 miles from the farm."

If a crop is sold mostly through wholesale outlets, such as through distributors, warehouses or fresh-cut processors, the farm is not exempt and is covered under the rule, according to LaBorde.

"Exemptions can be canceled if the Food and Drug Administration determines that a farm may be a source of contaminated produce," he said.

"And finally, keep in mind that growers of any size who sell at least some of their crop through wholesale marketing channels, even if technically not covered by the federal regulation, have been facing and will continue to face standards at least as stringent as anything in the final regulations."