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Meat and Poultry Hotline for Food Safety Info

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USDA Expands Meat and Poultry Hotline Hours to Further Provide Food Safety Information to Consumers

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced that it is increasing the delivery of safe food handling and preparation information by expanding the hours of its Meat and Poultry Hotline and Ask Karen chat services.  As detailed in the Agency’s 2017-2021 Strategic Plan, FSIS is focusing on the reduction of foodborne illness, and one way to contribute to that reduction is to increase public awareness of safe food handling information.

FSIS’ Meat and Poultry Hotline has been educating consumers since 1985. The toll-free telephone service assists in the prevention of foodborne illnesses by answering consumers’ questions about the safe storage, handling and preparation of meat, poultry and egg products. Beginning today, the hotline will be open for two additional hours, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET.

“Our hotline provides a valuable service in educating consumers about how to safely prepare food,” said FSIS Administrator Al Almanza. “By keeping the hotline open an additional two hours, we are expanding our reach to allow more consumers, including those on the West Coast, to have their food safety questions answered.”

The hotline is accompanied by Ask Karen, a 24-hour online service that provides answers to thousands of frequently asked questions and also allows consumers to email or live-chat with a food safety specialist during operating hours.

For 32 years the Meat and Poultry Hotline has answered questions about food manufacturer recalls, food poisoning, food safety during power outages, and the inspection of meat, poultry and egg products. From novice cooks roasting their first turkey to experienced food handlers asking about foodborne bacteria, the Meat and Poultry Hotline has answered more than 3 million calls since its inception.

“Our hotline staff are experts in their field and have backgrounds in nutrition, food technology and public health,” said Almanza. “Experts are available to talk with people in English and Spanish, so we are able to help address the food safety needs of diverse communities.”

Consumers can contact the Meat and Poultry Hotline to speak to a live food expert at 1-888-674-6854, or visit Ask Karen to chat or email (in English or Spanish), Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time/7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Pacific Time.

Spring: Egg Safety Time

Spring: A good time to remind you about egg safety

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

 

eggs

Photo: Iowa Extension

Spring is here (at least officially) and it is always a good time to remind ourselves of how to safely handle eggs. Whether you are hard-boiling them for an Easter or Passover celebration, or looking forward to serving deviled eggs at your family picnic, it is important to follow food safety guidelines.

It wasn’t all that long ago that we thought that uncracked eggs were essentially sterile (inside the egg). But, numerous foodborne disease outbreaks that were sourced back to eggs in the 1970s and 1980s sounded an alarm bell. Maybe the problem was actually Salmonella (a pathogen commonly associated with eggs) IN the egg, not only on the surface of the eggshell. The implications of this new thinking would have a great impact on how eggs are handled by the foodservice industry. If the Salmonella was in the egg, then simply cleaning the shell surface would not reduce the risk of illness from egg-containing menu items such as eggnog, soft-boiled eggs, some custards and other raw or partially cooked egg-containing foods.

Salmonella enteritidis (SE) is a common illness causing strain of this pathogen. It is often associated with eggs. From 1998-2008, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recorded that 60.3% of all SE outbreaks were traced to eggs as the source.

How does SE get into the egg?

There are potentially two ways for this pathogen to get into an egg. First, since Salmonella is an intestinal pathogen, chicken manure can be one source of the problem. Chicken pass eggs through the vent—the same way they poop out waste. Therefore, it is easy for chicken manure to some in contact with the surface of an egg. This can happen as the egg is laid, or if the egg comes into contact with the manure after it is laid, or rodent feces in the barn, or from other contaminated places in the farm environment.

Fresh shell eggs are protected by the “bloom” or “cuticle”, a gelatinous covering that dries after the egg is laid and helps to seal the pores in the egg shell. This is a natural covering that keeps moisture in and helps to keep bacteria out. Some customers may ask for unwashed eggs, thinking that this will mean a safer egg.

Commercially, eggs are often washed and/or sanitized prior to sale. Careful handling and refrigeration of eggs after washing helps to insure against cross contamination and the risk of pathogen growth.

A bigger problem, that is less amenable to environmental controls occurs when a hen’s ovaries for infected with SE. An infected chicken may look completely healthy—and so will her eggs.

Rules and regulations

A Federal Egg Safety rule went into effect in July 2010. Many provisions of the rule were aimed at reducing the risk for Salmonella infected birds. They also addressed environmental controls to minimize the pathogen in the hen house. Each operation must register with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and have a written SE Prevention Plan.

Some provisions of the rule address the monitoring and reduction of SE during the raising of pullets, or young hens. Other provisions address biosecurity, control of rodents and other pests, environmental sampling and testing, cleaning and disinfection of the hen house, egg sampling and testing, and refrigeration. Eggs must be held and transported at or below 45°F beginning 36 hours after laying.

The rule also exempts any operation with fewer than 3,000 laying hens and any farmer who sells all of his/her eggs directly to the consumer. These operations do not need to register with FDA, develop a prevention plan or keep records of cleaning or sanitizing operations.

No matter where you buy your eggs—from the farm or the supermarket, make sure that the eggs are refrigerated, clean and uncracked when you buy them. Be sure to refrigerate the eggs quickly after purchase. And, cook eggs until yolks are firm, and cook foods containing eggs thoroughly.

Safe handling of eggs

It is important to handle eggs safely to prevent illness.

When buying eggs, buy shell eggs only when sold from a refrigerator or refrigerated case. In Connecticut supermarkets, eggs must be held at temperatures no lower than 45°F. Open the carton, and make sure that the eggs are clean and the shells are not cracked.

Check “sell-buy” dates so that you are getting the freshest eggs. Sell-by dates are an indication to store owners when to pull the product from the shelves. This does not mean that the food is no longer safe to be consumed. Eggs are safe to eat when stored properly up to 4-5 weeks after the sell by date.

If you choose to buy pasteurized eggs or an egg substitute product (usually found in a cardboard carton) made from egg whites, be sure that the product is sold from a refrigerated or freezer case. Check “sell-buy” dates for the freshest product.

Storing eggs

Store eggs in the original carton, and refrigerate as soon as possible after purchase. Be sure that the temperature in your refrigerator is 40°F or below. Eggs are washed and sanitized before they are packed. Eggs should not be washed before storage because you may remove the natural coating on the shell that protects the egg.

When handling or preparing eggs

When preparing eggs, keep in mind that there is always a chance that they could be contaminated with bacteria. Wash your hands and all utensils, counters and cutting boards with hot water and soap before and after preparing eggs. Do not prepare raw eggs near ready-­to-eat foods like salads, cooked meat or fish, bread, rolls or fresh fruit.

  • Use only clean, unbroken eggs. Discard dirty or broken eggs.
  • Cold temperatures will reduce the chance that bacteria will multiply, so keep shell eggs, broken-out eggs or egg mixtures refrigerated before and after cooking.
  • Do not leave eggs in any form at room temperature for more than two hours including prepa­ration time and serving.
  • For picnics or outdoor parties, pack egg dishes with ice or a freezer gel pack in an insulated cooler or bag.
  • To prevent the contamination of other foods with the bacteria found in raw eggs, wash your hands, utensils, equipment and work areas with hot, soapy water before and after using eggs or making egg-containing foods to prevent cross-contamination.
  • To keep prepared egg dishes safe, refrigerate leftovers in shallow con­tainers immediately after serving so that they will cool quickly. Use left­overs within two days.

Cooking eggs

When eggs are fully cooked, bacteria, such as Salmonella, will be killed. When you cook eggs until the yolk and white are firm, you can be sure that they are safe. When eggs are the ingredients in fully cooked baked goods, you may also be sure that the bacteria have been killed. However, when eggs are ingredients in casser­oles, quiches, sauces or custards, it is best to use a thermometer to make sure that the food is cooked to at least 160°F.

If you like to eat eggs that are not cooked to this high temperature or if you are serving folks with compromised immune systems, you might want to consider using pasteurized egg products, often found in the dairy section or egg section of your market in a carton similar to a milk carton.

Hardboiled egg safety

Once eggs are cooked, they need to be refrigerated immediately if they are not to be eaten. For some reason, people thing that this is not true of hardboiled eggs…that somehow the shell will protect them from contamination and bacterial growth. Safe cooking and handling of hardboiled eggs includes the following steps:

  • Cook hard boiled eggs thoroughly. Cool quickly under cold running water or ice water, then refrigerate.
  • Keep in mind that once an egg is hard-cooked, the protective coating is washed away. This leaves open pores – and an entry point for bacteria.
  • Keep hard-cooked eggs in the refrigerator until ready to serve. If you are decorating your hard cooked eggs or using them for holiday activities, they should not be out of refrigeration for more than a total of 2 hours. That includes all time spent at room temperature once the egg is cooked—whether cooling, decorating, or using as a centerpiece. If hard cooked eggs are out of refrigeration for more than 2 hours (or even less time if it is over 70° F), then they must be thrown out.
  • Eat hard cooked eggs within 5 days or so.

For more information about egg safety, go to the US Food and Drug Administration web site at www.fda.gov, the US Department of Agriculture web site at www.fsis.usda.gov, or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-627.

Will Food Label Confusion Go Away?

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

 

use by label

Photo: USDA

When teaching consumers and those who prepare food for day care centers, food pantries, shelters, and senior lunch programs, I always spend a bit of time talking about food labels. Not the nutrition labels, which can also be confusing to the average consumer, but the “safety and quality” labels.

At this time, there are several phrases used by food manufacturers and retailers to help consumers and food preparers to know about the food they are about to purchase or prepare. These phrases include:

  • Sell by
  • Use by
  • Expires
  • Best if used by
  • Best before

These are all examples of open dating, a calendar date that the manufacturer or retailer applies to a food product. The calendar date provides consumers with information on the estimated period of time for which the product will be of best quality and/or to help the store determine how long to display the product for sale. Some manufactures also use a closed dating code that is usually for the purposes of record keeping or tracking products in case of a recall. Often these dates or codes are a series of numbers and letters that the consumer may or may not be able to decipher.

When these dates are used on perishable foods, such as dairy products, eggs or meat, fish or poultry, consumers might think that once the date is reached, it is time to toss to food in the garbage. But that is not the case.

Safety vs Quality

First of all, keep in mind that none of these dates are required by Federal law. The one exception is for infant formula. Because formula is basically the sole source of nutrition for infants up to a certain age, and the essential nutrients (vitamins, especially) can break down, so that the formula is no longer providing what the baby needs for healthy growth and development. Some states do require such labels. Connecticut requires that dairy products including milk, cheese and raw milk, have a “sell by” or “last date of sale” label.

The purpose of these dates is to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality—not necessarily safety.

Perishable foods, obviously, do not last forever. However, they are generally (if handled properly prior to eating), perfectly safe well past the sell by date on the container. Again, if safely handled (refrigerated properly during storage and transportation), eggs are safe as many as 4-6 weeks after the sell by date; dairy products 3-7 days after the sell by date, ground meat or fresh fish (1-2 days), deli cold cuts, 3-5 days and steaks, chops or roasts, 3-5 days. Again, these time ranges are guidelines. If there are signs of spoilage—odor, color change, sliminess—then toss the food, no matter the date! Unfortunately, the bugs that cause illness will not tell you they are there—they don’t make food smell bad or taste funny. Personally, I would throw out any foods beyond the time limits in this paragraph, if the sell by date is past or once I have opened them.

In addition, if you freeze any of these foods, you can extend the shelf life. While quality can suffer in the freezer (dehydration or freezer burn, rancidity in high fat foods), it is unlikely that the food will become dangerous to eat if frozen too long. Use by and sell by dates become meaningless if freezer storage is involved. But, consider the same time frames for using up these foods once defrosted: use ground meat in 1-2 days, fish in 1-2 days, cold cuts in 3-5 days and dairy products within 3-7 dates after defrosting.

Other foods present little or no food safety issues, no matter how long they are kept. Quality is the problem here. Chips, crackers, cereals and snack foods, especially if made from whole grains, can go stale and/or rancid over time. The exact length of time will depend on storage conditions. If it is warm or humid or if the food is exposed to sunlight where you store these foods, they are likely to suffer quality losses faster. But it will not hurt you to taste these foods yourself to see if they are still edible. While bread is similar, its moisture content may make it more prone to mold growth. If you see any mold growth, the bread should go. Mold can develop toxins that may cause illness or may be cancer causing. Don’t eat food that isn’t supposed to have mold on it.

New guidelines

In order to further reduce the wasting of perfectly good, but “out dated” food, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) are advising their members to rethink their safety and quality labels. They are proposing that only two labels be used. “Best if Used By” would be on most foods—indicating a loss of quality over time. But, for those that potentially pose a food safety risk, becoming less safe over time, the “Use By” label would be more appropriate.

People have been clamoring for simplification of these labels for a very long time. But concerns about food waste – whether for environmental, economic, or other reasons—have driven this most recent attempt to make quality and safety labels easier to understand.

For more information on food labels and food storage, go to foodsafety.uconn.edu or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

Produce Safety Training

Bruce speaking

Photo: Diane Wright Hirsch

Bruce Gresczyk, Jr., a Connecticut farmer and Produce Safety Alliance trainer teaches CT produce farmers about ag water and food safety at an Extension sponsored Produce Safety Alliance Grower Training yesterday.

Partnerships Create a Food Safety Culture

blossom end rot on tomato

Photo: Ohio Extension

Extension educators from throughout the Northeast consider collaboration essential to the success of their work with fruit and vegetable growers. In 2012, regional food safety specialists from the Universities of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Cornell received a NEED-NERA (Northeast Extension and Experiment Station Directors) planning grant focused on coordinating efforts to address the safety of post-harvest handling of fruits and vegetables on small, diversified northeast farms. Recognizing the limitations of our individual resources, it only made sense to work together. “The Northeast regional partners involved in food safety Extension programming have established a cooperative to better support our stakeholders,” states Amanda Kinchla, Extension Assistant Professor from the University of Massachusetts. “Over the past few years, we have been able to leverage resources and establish supports that help address critical food safety issues.” Produce farmers have benefited from this collaboration as research-based information regarding use of agricultural water, produce washing and sanitation is shared and work-shops, curricula and training videos and material are developed. For more information on programs visit: http://www.foodsafety.uconn.edu

Food Safety Modernization Act Info Session

FSMA logoAre you still wondering how the FSMA Produce Safety Rule will affect your life and your livelihood? The University of Connecticut Extension in cooperation with the Connecticut Department of Agriculture/USDA Specialty Crops program is providing an opportunity for farmers to learn more about FSMA.

 

We will discuss the rule, exemptions from the rule, key provisions, resources for keeping up to date on implementation and training. We can update you on the training programs that will be provided in February and March. There will be an opportunity to ask questions.

FDA Food Safety Modernization Act Information Session

December 15, 2016 (snow date, December 16), 9:30 am-noon

Middlesex County Extension Center, Haddam, CT

We will also be offering this program in a webinar format, using the WebEx program. If you are interested in this option, please let me know when you register.

The info sessions are provided at no cost, but pre-registration is required.

To register, send an email to diane.hirsch@uconn.edu. In the subject line, write “FSMA Update”. In your email include:

  • names of all attendees,
  • their farm or organization names,
  • phone numbers (in case of weather issues)
  • email addresses
  • whether you prefer to be in person or on the webinar

If you prefer to register by phone, or, if you have any questions, contact Diane Hirsch at 203.407.3163.

5 Tips for a Food Safe Thanksgiving

turkeyWASHINGTON — This week millions of Americans will gather family and friends around the dinner table to give thanks. But for those preparing the meal, it can be a stressful time. Not to mention, for many it is the largest meal they have cooked all year, leaving plenty of room for mistakes that could cause foodborne illness.

“Unsafe handling and undercooking of food can lead to serious foodborne illness,” said Al Almanza, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “Turkeys may contain Salmonella and Campylobacter, harmful pathogens that are only destroyed by properly preparing and cooking the turkey. Similarly, leaving leftovers out for too long, or not taking care to properly clean cooking and serving surfaces, can lead to other types of illness. We want to be sure that all consumers know the steps they can take and resources that are available to them to help prepare a safe and enjoyable holiday meal. ”

To avoid making everyone at the table sick, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) offers five tips for a food safe Thanksgiving:

Tip 1: Don’t Wash That Turkey.

According to the most recent Food Safety Survey, conducted by the Food and Drug Administration, 68 percent of the public washes whole turkey before cooking it. USDA does not recommend washing raw meat and poultry before cooking. Washing raw meat and poultry can cause bacteria to spread up to three feet away. Cooking (baking, broiling, boiling, frying or grilling) meat and poultry to the right temperature kills any bacteria that may be present, so washing meat and poultry is not necessary.

Tip 2: Use the refrigerator, the cold-water method or the microwave to defrost a frozen turkey.

There are three safe ways to defrost a turkey: in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave oven. Thawing food in the refrigerator is the safest method because the turkey will defrost at a consistent, safe temperature. It will take 24 hours for every 5 pounds of weight for a turkey to thaw in the refrigerator. To thaw in cold water, submerge the bird in its original wrapper in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes. For instructions on microwave defrosting, refer to your microwave’s owner’s manual. Cold water and microwave thawing can also be used if your bird did not entirely defrost in the refrigerator.

Tip 3: Use a meat thermometer.

The only way to determine if a turkey (or any meat, poultry or seafood) is cooked is to check its internal temperature with a food thermometer. A whole turkey should be checked in three locations: the innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing and the thickest part of the breast. Your thermometer should register 165°F in all three of these places. The juices rarely run clear at this temperature, and when they do the bird is often overcooked. Using the food thermometer is the best way to ensure your turkey is cooked, but not overdone.

Tip 4: Don’t store food outside, even if it’s cold.

Storing food outside is not food safe for two reasons. The first is that animals, both wild and domesticated, can get into food stored outside, consuming it or contaminating it. The second is temperature variation. Just like your car gets warm in the summer, a plastic food storage container in the sun can heat up and climb into the danger zone (above 40°F). The best way to keep that extra Thanksgiving food at a safe temperature (below 40°F) is in a cooler with ice.

Tip 5: Leftovers are good in the refrigerator for up to four days.

Cut the turkey off the bone and refrigerate it as soon as you can, within 2 hours of the turkey coming out of the oven. Leftovers will last for four days in the refrigerator, so if you know you won’t use them right away, pack them into freezer bags or airtight containers and freeze. For best quality, use your leftover turkey within four months. After that, the leftovers will still be safe, but can dry out or lose flavor.

Want additional food safety tips?

If you have questions about your Thanksgiving dinner, you can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) to talk to a food safety expert. Last November they answered more than 3,000 calls about Thanksgiving dinner. You can also chat live with a food safety expert at AskKaren.gov, available from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday, in English and Spanish.

If you need help on Thanksgiving Day, the Meat and Poultry Hotline is available from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. ET.

Consumers with food safety questions can visit FoodSafety.gov to learn more about how to safely select, thaw and prepare a turkey. For more Thanksgiving food safety tips, follow FSIS on Twitter,@USDAFoodSafetyThis is an external link or third-party site outside of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website., or on Facebook, at Facebook.com/FoodSafety.gov.

Making a Better Cheese

UConn Extension’s Dennis D’Amico works with Arethusa and other small businesses on food safety in their cheese and dairy production plants. Watch this short video from USDA Rural Development to learn more.

CYFAR Summer Experience at Auerfarm

By Sherry Gray

student in gardenThe Auerfarm is a 4-H Education Center with 120 acres located in the northwest section of Bloomfield, Connecticut. The Farm was deeded to the non-profit Connecticut 4–H Development Fund in 1976; however; has a rich history dating back to the early years of the 20th Century. The farm served as a model farm to other farmers in the 1950’s and hence, grew into a place that values education, outreach and engagement. The farm currently houses livestock including cows, goats, alpaca, donkeys, sheep, rabbits and chickens. It also has several large vegetable and flower gardens, an apple orchard, and a blueberry patch. Extension supported the building of a greenhouse on the property that is heavily used by school groups and master gardeners. Each year 14,000 children and 5,000 adults visit and access educational programs at the farm.

CYFAR’s Tools for Healthy Living grant partnered with Auerfarm this summer to provide multiple weeklong day programs for low-income youth from Hartford. Each week twelve to fifteen 8-12 year old low-income youth from Hartford participated in a program designed to enrich their understanding of food, health, and agriculture through hands on learning. During this time, University of Connecticut (UConn) staff presented two lessons about issues related to food safety; these lessons are part of the Tools for Healthy Living curriculum that was developed as part of this grant project. The first lesson was a lesson on hand washing and the second was on how to avoid food related illness. Students also spent time in the gardens, visiting animals and preparing the food they had picked.

The summer program was a highly positive experience for students, many who had not attended a summer farm program before. Students were very excited to go to the gardens and the blueberry patch.  Several students made statements including “we get to pick berries!” The students also indicated that “this is a new experience” for (most) of them and upon the announcement from the teacher that berry picking time was over several made comments that they “wanted to do it again.”

The children were very excited to be in the garden. One day, the UConn Master Gardener trapped a groundhog that she then showed to the students. The animal intrigued them all, but some had differing opinions about it. Some thought that it “looks mean” while others thought it “cute.” Educators explained why they caught the groundhog noting that they “eat eleven pounds of vegetables a day.” The children were assigned tasks to pick vegetables, weeds or get grass for the animals to eat later. The children really seemed to enjoy the garden experience stating “I want to have my own garden” and “this is the best day of my life.” This garden supports the Foodshare organization by producing 2 tons of produce annually for hungry families in Hartford. Extension Master Gardeners are active with the Foodshare garden ensuring we give back to the community. One student notes that, “she doesn’t even like carrots, but she is happy that she gets to help pick them so that people who are hungry can eat them.” The students were enthusiastic about taking the vegetables from the garden into the kitchen to prepare their lunches, including, salads, roasted beets, pizza, and tacos.

All of the youth attending this summer program loved the experience, particularly being in the gardens, blueberry patch and in the kitchen. They interacted during the food safety lessons and showed increased awareness for the need to do thorough handwashing and minimize food safety risks. The animals and gardens throughout the property served as platforms for interactive learning. One student exclaimed “I can’t wait to come back to camp next year.” Another stated, “I just really like the fresh air and mountains.” As a result of this project, our grant team strengthened our partnership with Auerfarm and provided many youth with a farm experience that they would not have otherwise had the opportunity to attend.

 

Sherry Gray, PI Tools for Healthy Living

Mary Margaret Gaudio, co-PI Tools for Healthy Living

Jen Cushman, 4-H Extension Educator, Hartford County Extension

Miriah Kelly, Project Evaluator

Christine Smith, CYFAR Program Assistant

Angela Caldera, Hartford EFNEP

Marilyn Diaz, Hartford Administrative Assistant

 

Creating a Food Safety Culture

canning tomatoesA report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published in 2013 described the increasingly evident relationship between produce and foodborne illness: over a ten year period, from 1998 to 2008, produce was responsible for 46% of diagnosed foodborne illness where a source was determined. This often surprises consumers who normally consider meat and poultry the leading cause of foodborne illness.

But, researchers and regulators have been focusing on the safety of fruits and vegetables since 1998 when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) jointly released the Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, also known as Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). That voluntary program was the first of many aimed at addressing the growing number of illnesses attributed to produce.

Fast-forward a decade. Large outbreaks tied to spinach, sprouts, melon, and tomatoes continued to occur, despite the voluntary guidelines. Over time, larger retail customers and distributors began looking for assurances that produce was being grown, harvested and packaged using food-safe practices. Some regional retailers and distributors now require suppliers of local produce to submit a third party GAP audit, which assesses compliance with GAP standards.

Farmers do not generally think of themselves as food handlers or processors. They have not had to submit to any kind of inspection or audit in the past to ensure that they were applying specific food handling standards to their operation. This can be hard to wrap their heads around.

Because produce safety and safe handling standards are new to just about everyone in the business, from farmers to retailers and regulators, training is essential to help farmers prepare for third party GAP audits. Most farmers in Connecticut have signed on with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) audit program. Mark Zotti of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture is trained and certified to conduct annual farm audits.

Extension’s GAP School has offered training to produce farmers for over 10 years. Extension Educators Diane Wright Hirsch on food safety and Candace Bartholomew on pesticide education, conduct the course. Funding from the USDA Specialty Crops Initiative via the Connecticut Department of Agriculture has supported Extension produce safety efforts, with a total of $83,279 awarded. One benefit of funding was a one-day course was developed for farmers to learn about safe produce handling and sanitation in their packinghouses, whether they are small outdoor spaces with a roof, or larger enclosed facilities.

The course is now two full days with new information and more complex GAP standards. In addition, farmers may meet individually with Extension educators to review their food safety plans.

The course begins with a review of foodborne outbreaks tied to fruits and vegetables and the relevant microbiology. It is easier to understand why these practices are important if farmers understand how consumers get sick from food they eat.

Farmers develop a farm description and conduct an assessment of water sources and irrigation systems. They learn about standards to pass an audit, which include addressing safety in irrigation water, manure use, sanitation programs for harvest utensils and equipment, worker health and hygiene, and ultimately post-harvest handling, storage, transportation, and maintenance of a clean packing facility.

Farmers write a food safety plan on how food safety practices are implemented, and develop records to document practices. Aside from making capital improvements, writing a food safety plan can be the most challenging step to preparing for an audit. Templates and models are used to help farmers with writing a narrative description, and standard operating procedures (SOPs).

“UConn Extension has been invaluable in providing my farm with training to help us develop a farm food safety plan and implement a successful GAP program. Most of all, the training has really raised our awareness and commitment to food safety,” says Nelson Cecarelli of Cecarelli Farms in Northford.

Unfortunately, despite voluntary efforts, produce related outbreaks continued. As with other food commodities including meat, poultry, seafood and juice, legislation requiring many of the GAP guidelines was enacted. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), Produce Safety Rule was finalized in November 2015. Hirsch and Bartholomew have been providing information sessions to help farmers understand compliance and local exemptions of FSMA.

Andy Reale of Ferrari Farms in Glastonbury summed up his experience, “I have attended UConn Extension GAP, and now FSMA programs since their inception. The GAP sessions allow us to continue doing business with those that requested it, and now that will continue with FSMA.”