Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and Aquaponics

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the most sweeping reform of our food safety laws in more than 70 years, was signed into law by President Obama on January 4, 2011. The FSMA is still being defined and has not yet been implemented. FDA states that they are committed to developing a final rule on produce safety that prevents illnesses but is also practical and adaptable to a wide diversity of growing conditions and practices. Based on current discussion, it appears that the FSMA will be implemented in early 2014.

The past decade in the fresh food industry has been marred by continued incidence of food contamination and food-borne illness. Causes range from impure water to unsanitary conditions in fields and packing facilities, to imports that are not inspected. Much of this food, including what is labeled as organic, is coming from countries without strict safety, nutritional or environmental regulations. Food that is handled in massive processing and packaging facilities has proven to be susceptible to contamination as well. It is this precedent of large-scale food contamination that has prompted the US government to create the FSMA.

Combining Controlled Environment Agriculture with Clear Flow Aquaponic Systems® and our patented ZDEP system, gives a grower the ability to enforce a bio-security program that will keep the food free of contamination. We can demonstrate this through our history of food safety as well as through scientific microbial testing.

There have been concerns expressed by many about the far reaching control the FSMA gives to the FDA and there have been concerns about how the FSMA will affect small farmers, including aquaponic growers. The FSMA has been evolving from the original proposed statues based on public input. Given that the FSMA is still being refined, it is difficult to project exactly what the ramifications will be. As of now, the FDA website has the newest information and fact sheets posted, many reflecting the most recent changes, based on public input. All quoted text in this blog comes directly from the Fact sheets at the FDA website.

One area of discussion in the aquaponics community is SubPart F, Biological Soil Amendments, part of which states that: “Soil amendments” are any chemical, biological, or physical material intentionally added to the soil to improve the chemical or physical condition of the soil in relation to plant growth or to improve the capacity of the soil to hold water. “Biological soil amendments of animal origin” are biological soil amendments which consist, in whole or in part, of materials of animal origin, such as manure or non‐fecal animal byproducts, or table waste, alone or in combination.”

In aquaponics the “soil amendment” clause might not be an issue, since we have no soil to amend. And, in our Clear Flow Aquaponic Systems® with our patented ZDEP system, the fish waste is removed and just the nutrient-rich water is used to feed the plant roots. The system waster does not come in contact with the plant stem or leaves.

If the fish waste in aquaponics is considered a “Soil Amendment,” there is a section titled “Alternatives” that allows variations in how “Biological Soil Amendments” can be applied, as long as the prevention of pathogens can be demonstrated. Specifically, it states that : “You may establish and use alternatives to the composting treatment processes established in §112.54(c) (1) and (c)(2), and for the minimum application intervals established in § 112.56(a)(1)(a) and in § 112.56(a) (4)(a), provided you have adequate scientific data or information to support a conclusion that the alternative would provide the same level of public health protection as the composting treatment processes and the minimum application intervals established in the proposed rule and would not increase the likelihood that your covered produce will be adulterated under sec?on 402 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.”

And, it continues to state:“Farms would not need to ask permission or petition FDA in order to use alternative measures, provided they have adequate scientific data and documentation used to support those alternatives. That documentation could be as simple as a peer‐reviewed journal article or a State Extension bulletin; something developed and used successfully by the grower, a community of growers, or a process developed or made available to the grower by a third‐party. Farms would simply use the alternative measure and provide documentation if asked.”

In aquaponics, we can demonstrate that the fish waste is from cold-blooded animals that do not harbor the same pathogens as warm-blooded animals and therefor, is not a threat to food safety. And, we can further demonstrate this through peer-reviewed journals and through microbial testing. The FDA has established acceptable levels of specific pathogens, with the intension being that if you can demonstrate that your produce is within the acceptable range, you will not be prohibited from selling it.

After reading the fact sheets and information provided by the FDA on the FSMA, I am confident there will be an umbrella under which aquaponics will be allowed. The unfounded fears about the end of small farms that I have seen expressed in blogs and editorials are just that, unfounded. I do agree that the FSMA is far reaching and a big government path that is very invasive and costly for all of us. But, I do not anticipate that it will hamper the growth or incredible potential of aquaponic food production and controlled environment agriculture.

Outdoor aquaponic farms and low-tech aquaponic farms that do not practice bio-security or food safety protocol could be at risk, however.

The other area of discussion of the FSMA and aquaponic farms is the increased level of inspection and documentation that might be required. As it stands now, there are small-farm exemptions and partial exemptions, based on size. The basic premise is that any farm that grosses less than $25,000/year (for the past three years) is exempt and any farm that grosses less than $500,000/year will be partially exempt. Many aquaponic farms are relatively small compared to other food producers that these rules apply to, and will therefore be less affected by the FSMA. And, if you are a conscientious grower following a GAP plan, practicing food safety protocol and product tracing and documenting this, it is likely that you are already on your way to meeting some of the requirements of the FSMA.

Keep in mind, though, that this bill and its definitions are still in flux. All information is available at:

The fact sheet related to farming produce can be found here:

Stay informed and if you want to know how the FSMA will affect you, read these documents rather than opinions, including mine.

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