Food safety has been in the news many times in recent years with a string of food contamination outbreaks as well as a new federal Food Safety Modernization Act that was signed into law last January and rolled out last summer.

About 48 million people (1 in 6 Americans) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year from foodborne diseases, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s website. These statistics, along with public pressure no doubt were instrumental in the implementation of the new food safety act.

Cantaloupes, scallions, spinach — these were just a few of the suspect origins of foodborne illnesses that have made shoppers stop and reconsider food purchases. It is difficult for me to see those plump cantaloupes in the grocery even now, and not think about that awful bacteria (Listeria monocytogenes) outbreak that occurred a couple years ago. We recall the 33 deaths that resulted from the outbreak which also sickened 147 in 28 states. It was scary. Food had become poisonous. But there was more associated with that contamination case that the public probably has not hear about.

The owners of Colorado farm that produced the melons were charged. Food safety experts say this is the first time they recall a grower facing criminal charges for a foodborne illness outbreak, according to the online newsletter “Inside Grower,” by Anne White. Several lawsuits were also filed by victims’ families, and the farm owners could face more than a $1 million in fines and possible prison sentences. A four-generation farm was eventually lost due to what has been considered one of the most notorious national food outbreaks.

Yet according to a recent online news story on the issue in “GRIST,” prior to the outbreak, an audit of the farm’s cooling system (which has been blamed for the infection) resulted in a “superior” rating by a contracted food inspection company. The farm’s owners are now suing that inspection group which was essentially a private company hired by the government to conduct food safety inspections, claiming that the system is essentially flawed. No doubt there will be more to this issue in the future. The safety of our food sources is something of concern for many consumers.

I have little doubt that food safety has been a driving force behind a resurgence of home vegetable gardens as well as the resurgence of time-honored practices such as root cellaring, dehydrating and even fermenting foods for long-term storage. The growing popularity and support of locally-grown vegetables and fruits has been another response. Folks just want to know what they are eating, and do not want to have to worry about what they are feeding their families.

Last summer local organic farms learned how the new food safety act will impact their operations. Naturally growers were concerned about possible onerous restrictions and guidelines. And as can be expected their customers had concerns as well, about how the new act might impact the availability of fresh foods and their cost. According to the “Inside Grower” piece on the issue: According to the FDA, 14,350 of (food contamination) illnesses, 1,382 of the hospitalizations and 34 of the deaths can be attributed to contamination that likely happened early in the production chain — that is, during growing, harvesting, manufacturing, processing, packing, holding or transportation. The outbreaks were associated with 20 different fresh produce commodities. And according to the FDA, "This is a significant public health burden that is largely preventable.”

White continues that the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), "…enables FDA to better protect public health by strengthening the food safety system. It enables FDA to focus more on preventing food safety problems rather than relying primarily on reacting to problems after they occur.

“To that end, FDA was mandated to establish ‘science-based minimum standards’ for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of produce on farms to minimize contamination that could cause serious adverse health consequences or death,” White reports.

So, here’s what local growers found out about the new food safety act, news that most likely helped to put their concerns at ease. According to White’s online newsletter piece, the FDA is working to establish science-based standards, but in the meantime, they have determined who the law will apply to, and that depends on sales volume and who they are selling to. Currently exempt if:

• Selling less than $25,000 in annual food sales

• Selling less than $500,000 in annual food sales and a majority of your food (by value) is sold directly to "qualified end-users" (identified as consumers; and also as restaurants and retail food establishments that are in the same state that you’re producing in, OR not more than 275 miles from your business).

That means that a farm doing more than $500,000 in food production, will have to comply with the rules, whatever they are. But those doing less than that, and sell locally to consumers or qualified end users, are exempt.

In addition, White reports: The proposed standards would focus on commonly identified routes of microbial contamination of produce, including:

• agricultural water

• farm worker hygiene

• manure and other additions to the soil

• animals in growing areas

• equipment, tools and buildings.

There are also specific proposed standards for sprouts. Growers/producers will have two to six years to comply with the rules, depending upon their size and the specific rule.

As we go into that season when many of us are buying more of our fresh fruits and vegetables, we can now have a better idea of how the new food safety act can affect those foods. And we hope the new act can be used to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks in the future.

Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the Garden Writers Association’s Silver Award of Achievement, and she gardens in Camden. Got questions, or comments? Visit her blog, and join in the conversation at: gardeningonthego.wordpress.com or ”friend” her on Facebook to see what’s new in the garden day-by-day.