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Why Farmers Are Pleading: Leave Your Dogs Home

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

UConn Extension Educator – Food Safety

Jonathan HuskyOver the years I have worked with many fruit and vegetable farmers, as they have become the focus of new food safety regulations. Some of these farms sell their product through pick-your-own (PYO) operations, some at an on-farm stand; others have CSA (community supported agriculture) programs. More and more of them are no longer allowing visiting dogs on their property. Some customers are not taking it well.

It can be difficult after years of being allowed to bring the dog along to the farm as you pick apples or visit the market. There might have even been a farm dog or two lounging in the back of the store or running up and down the aisles. But, things have changed, including food safety standards of practice. Believe it when I say, this is much harder on the farmer.

Starting with the voluntary Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program over ten years ago, it has become the standard for dogs, cats, and even wandering chickens to be reined in during the harvest season, in particular. These new practices and rules came about when fruits and vegetables hit the top of the “most likely to cause a foodborne illness” charts. Outbreaks associated with fresh produce are making more people sick than seafood, hamburger, or chicken. The new federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule, adopted due to this increase in association with outbreaks, will result in food safety inspections of some of the larger farms in Connecticut—and more attention will be given to where Kitty or Spot are roaming.

Cats can no longer be used as pest control in a packinghouse. Chickens cannot be free ranging in the lettuce fields. Pet dogs should not be allowed to defecate near the squash vines. Animal feces can be the source of Salmonella, E. coli and other disease causing microbes associated with foodborne illness. Of course, this is not limited to domesticated animals. Wildlife must be carefully monitored, and, when possible, managed with fences or repellents, such as an air cannon. Outbreaks have been associated with feces on produce. It only makes sense to try to reduce the risk.

So consider the farmer and the burden visiting pets may place on them. Dogs make great pets, but they come with some bad habits that may have an impact on the safety of the food a farm grows and sells. What are you going to do when at a moment you are distracted, perhaps paying your bill; your dog lifts its leg on a produce display, or box of apples at the farmers’ market? Even if the owner attempts to be fastidious about cleaning up after a dog’s mess, it’s unlikely that all traces of poop can be removed. It will be left to be tracked throughout the market or growing area. Chances are you are petting your dog, and then choosing the perfect apple without even thinking twice about it.

While food safety is one concern, customer safety can certainly be another reason for the “NO DOGS ALLOWED” signs. Dogs will be dogs, and no matter how
well trained, dog bites, dog fights and other unpleasant contacts with other customers can sometimes be problematic. Some folks may be allergic to your dog. It would be much better if you just buy some gourmet home-made dog treats at the market and bring them home to her.

Yes, it is true that some farmers’ markets and even some pick your own farms still allow patrons to bring their pets along for the ride. It is a risky choice they make. Please follow the rules at the farm you choose to visit—and thank the farmer for their concern for customer health and wellbeing.

In addition to restrictions on Fido, the farmer may encourage you to wash your hands before picking your own berries or after using the portable toilet. Or they may ask you not to visit the farm if you are sick. Foodborne disease outbreaks are often traced back to sick people or unclean hands that are touching food. And we all know that when we are choosing our fresh produce we have to handle at least six or seven tomatoes or cucumbers or whatever before we find the one that we are happy with.

Farms are also limiting public access to their farm animals. Some of this has resulted from farm visitors getting sick after handling baby goats or chickens. These animals may carry pathogens (the microbes that make us sick) with no outward signs of illness. Another farm no longer lets visitors feed goats, as there is no on-label rabies vaccination available for goats. While they may use an off-label product, perhaps one that is approved for other farm animals, technically, the goats are not vaccinated. Famers do not want customers inadvertently contracting rabies from one of their animals.

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.”