Michael Taylor, FDA's commissioner for foods, said the agency wants to make sure the rules are practical for farmers who have to abide by them. The rules proposed in January would require farmers to take new precautions against contamination, making sure workers' hands are washed, irrigation water is clean and that animals stay out of fields, among other precautions. Food manufacturers would also have to submit food safety plans to the government to show they are keeping their operations clean.
Those changes would in many cases require new equipment, paperwork and record keeping.
Taylor said the agency's thinking has evolved after talking to farmers.
"Because of the input we received from farmers and the concerns they expressed about the impact of these rules on their lives and livelihood, we realized that significant changes must be made, while ensuring that the proposed rules remain consistent with our food safety goals," Taylor said in a blog post on the FDA website.
The rules would mark the first time the FDA would have real authority to regulate food on farms, and the FDA said when it proposed the rules that they could cost large farms $30,000 a year.
The food safety law was passed by Congress at the end of 2010, weeks before Republicans assumed control of the House. Since then, many GOP lawmakers have said the rules are too burdensome for farmers, and the House version of a five-year farm bill would delay some of the law. Some Democrats advocating for organic farmers have also been critical, saying small farms can't afford the new standards.
Many of the concerns the FDA heard from farmers were about new regulations for testing irrigation water, Taylor said. Organic farmers have also been wary of standards for using raw manure and compost.
Supporters have said the new laws are needed after several high-profile, foodborne illness outbreaks in peanuts, spinach, eggs, cantaloupe and other foods. While many farmers and food manufacturers already follow good food safety practices, the law would aim to ensure that all of them do. There are an estimated 3,000 deaths a year from foodborne illness.
The rules are already somewhat tailored to make the changes easier on farmers. They would apply only to certain fruits and vegetables that pose the greatest risk, like berries, melons, leafy greens and other foods that are usually eaten raw. A farm that produces green beans that will be canned and cooked, for example, would not be regulated.
In addition to regulating farms and food manufacturing facilities, the food safety law authorized more inspections by the FDA and gave the agency additional powers to shut down food facilities. The law also required stricter standards on imported foods.
Revising the rule will cause more delays in what has already been a lengthy process. Taylor said the new proposed rules are expected by next summer, with a deadline for final rules in June 2015. The FDA is legally required to finalize the rules by that date after they were sued by an advocacy group last year for missing deadlines included in the original 2010 law.
Taylor said the agency was not trying to scale back the rules, but make them more workable.
"We're not rolling back on our food safety purpose. We're trying to find the right way to get there," he said.
Caroline Smith DeWaal, a longtime food safety advocate with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the law will force the FDA to ensure that food is safer.
"While FDA can make the proposed rules more practical for farmers, under the law the agency can't sacrifice consumers' safety," she said.