A 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.”