FSMA

CT Seeks Better Information & Understanding of Produce Growers

Connecticut seeks better information and understanding of produce growers in the state

bushel of applesThe University of Connecticut Extension is collaborating with the Connecticut Department of Agriculture (DoAg) to support Connecticut produce growers covered by the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule.  In order to do that, we need to have more and better information about farms that grow produce in Connecticut.

Better knowledge and understanding of who is growing produce in Connecticut, who is covered by the Rule, who may be eligible for an exemption, and who must comply fully with the Rule, can only help us improve implementation of FSMA rules and better meet food safety information and resource needs of Connecticut farms.

Every farmer that fills out the survey will be entered into a drawing to win one of two Connecticut Grown pop-up tents.  In order to participate in the drawing, the survey must be completed/returned by October 1, 2018.

We know that many farms are not covered by or are exempted from parts of the Rule.  Please complete the survey even if you think you may be exempt from parts of the Rule or not covered at all. The information we get from uncovered farms or farms with exemptions will help us to:

  • eliminate any farms from our mailing list that do not grow fruits or vegetables and
  • develop alternative food safety programs aimed at reducing food safety risks of uncovered or exempted farms and helping them meet food safety requirements of potential buyers of their product.

The questionnaire should take only 5-10 minutes to complete. There are three options for completing the questionnaire:

  1. If you would like to complete the online version directly here is the link: Farm Survey Questionnaire
  2. If you would like to complete this survey on your mobile device, scan the QR code here: Produce Survey QR Code
  3. If you would prefer a copy to be emailed or mailed to you, contact Diane Hirsch at: diane.hirsch@uconn.edu 

Food Safety for Produce Buyers

On July 17, UConn Extension and the Connecticut Department of Agriculture hosted a meeting in Storrs for operations (distributors, schools, institutions, restaurants, grocery stores, and foodservice operations) that buy fresh produce from farms in southern New England. A team of regulators and produce safety educators from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island conceived and developed the program to raise awareness and answer questions about how the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), Produce Safety Rule (PSR), Preventive Controls for Human Food, Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) audits and state produce inspection programs will affect regional farmers and their customers. More than 50 retailers, regulators, distributors, school and university foodservice personnel and farmers from across New England came to learn.

Diane Hirsch
Diane Wright Hirsch. Photo: Eshan Sonpal

FSMA is the regulation implemented in 2011 to improve the safety of the US food supply. The regulation includes two rules that specifically impact those who grow, distribute and sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Included are the Produce Safety Rule (PSR), the Preventive Controls Rule (PC). “While many believe that meat or eggs or poultry are likely the source of most foodborne illnesses in the US, in fact it is fruits and vegetables that top the list. We need to work to reduce these numbers,” said Diane Wright Hirsch, Food Safety Educator with UConn Extension. “It is important that anyone preparing fruits and vegetables for a restaurant or school or selling them at a grocery store be familiar with the regulations that affect the industry.”

The Preventive Controls Rule regulates those who warehouse and distribute produce. It outlines Good Manufacturing Practices including procedures that impact the safety of the food they are holding: worker hygiene, worker food safety training, sanitation and pest control are some of the practices outlined in the Rule. The Produce Safety Rule requires growers of fresh fruits and vegetables to implement practices that reduce risks for contamination of fresh produce with microorganisms that cause foodborne illness.

Mark Zotti is an Agriculture Marketing/Inspection Representative with the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, and says, “Every

Mark Zotti
Mark Zotti. Photo: Eshan Sonpal

farmer should educate themselves on what the FSMA Produce Safety Rule says and how it relates to them. The Rule makes science-based standards for the growing and harvesting and holding/packing of fresh fruits and vegetables. Never before were there laws related to those activities, so it’s important that farms regardless of size, know what the PSR says.”

“There’s been a documented increase in foodborne illnesses related to produce,” Mark states. “A lot of that can be correlated to the increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and the regions and practices used during the production of produce. Nationwide we’ve seen the produce industry require that farms who grow for them implement practices aimed at reducing the risk of microbial contamination during the growing, harvesting, holding, and packing of fresh fruits and vegetables. We hope the information provided today benefits the participants and the farmers they work with.”

Sean Stolarik is the Produce Sales Manager for Big Y Foods, Inc, and he attended the July training on behalf of his organization. “This is very relevant to my day to day life. When it comes to food safety and where our growers have to be in terms of regulations, this is very important.”

Sean Stolarik
Sean Stolarik. Photo: Eshan Sonpal

“Today’s training will help Big Y Foods, Inc. with transparency with customers, knowing that the farms we are buying produce from are using safe agricultural practices. It will help me to know what questions to ask the growers and know what requirements that growers must meet,” Sean continues. “My biggest takeaway is that the rules are complex, with many different parts and some allowed exceptions. We are trying to understand the laws because they can be confusing sometimes.”

To help Connecticut farmers comply with the PSR, the Department of Agriculture and UConn Extension are providing nationally accredited Produce Safety Alliance Grower training to fresh fruit and vegetable growers in the state. Growers can attend training, learn the specifics of the regulation, find out about resources available to them, and go back to the farm with the tools needed to make changes in their food safety practices, including making their facilities easier to clean and taking steps to comply with the regulation.

Produce buyers can have access to the curriculum through the Produce Safety Alliance website as well. Downloading and reviewing the grower training materials will help them to determine what practices or procedures they may want to see implemented by the farmers they buy from.

“Everyone needs to take responsibility for their piece of the food system,” Diane concludes. “Farmers need to produce a safe product, distributors need to take that product and keep it safe for consumers that eat it. Produce is a risky food because you are not cooking it for the most part. It’s important to know how to safely grow, harvest, distribute and prepare fresh fruits and vegetable so that we can reduce the risks for consumers.”

For more information visit foodsafety.uconn.edu or ctgrown.gov.

Article by Eshan Sonpal

Food Safety on Farms

carrotsFruits and vegetables add important nutrients, color, variety to our diet. Most of us enjoy them raw in salads, as a snack, or dessert. However, in the last few years there has been an increase in the number of foodborne illness outbreaks asso- ciated with fresh fruits and vegetables. Spinach, cantaloupe, tomatoes, cilantro, and green onions, have been on the outbreak list. Many consumers are unaware that produce is the number one source of foodborne illness—it is more likely to be associated with foodborne illness than meat, poultry, fish or dairy products.

A series of programs and laws were developed to bring consistency nationwide and reduce the number of foodborne illness outbreaks. These include: Good Agricultural Practices (GAP)—a voluntary audit program, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), and the FSMA Produce Safety Rule.

The Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule (PSR) was passed in 2011, implemented in 2016, and establishes science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, pack- ing, and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption. The PSR is aimed at reducing

foodborne illness from fresh fruits and vegetables. Farmers that are not exempt from the rule must attend approved training. UConn Extension Educator Diane Hirsch offers the Produce Safety Alliance course, and GAP audit preparation courses.

Case Study: Gresczyk Farms LLC

First of all, I deeply appreciate everything Extension educators do for us as farms. I give credit to Extension forBruce Gresczyk Jr. talks about food safety on his farm everything I’m good at growing. I think the only way agriculture can be strong in this state is if we all do a good job at it. Part of this is food safety.

Admittedly, the part I knew the least about was food safety. The produce rule and FSMA kind of scared me, not knowing anything about it. It’s a very complex law. Plus, our farm also wanted to achieve voluntary GAP certification. Essentially certain buyers on the wholesale level require you to be part of GAP so they can meet the qualifications of their food safety program.

At Gresczyk Farms LLC in New Hartford we grow 130 acres of vegetables. We also have 3⁄4 acres of greenhouses, with vegetable crops grown inside, and 600 laying hens for egg production. I became a course instructor for the Produce Safety Alliance Course, working with Diane.

I like learning and talking about stuff. I figured the best way to handle food safety on our farm is to learn how to teach it. I’ve always been very open with other farmers, and happy to talk to anybody about grow- ing. It gets back to my theory of if we’re all good at farming, it helps agriculture in general. That was my motivation to become a trainer.

I recommend anyone take the class, even if you’re just doing a little bit of farming. It doesn’t matter if you’re growing an acre or 200-acres. The FSMA class can really help farmers improve their decision making.

It’s helped me address the food safety practices on our farm. A lot of what farm- ers are already doing is right, I found it was tweaking more so than anything else. It definitely raised my awareness. We were GAP certified in summer of 2017, and changed a lot of things, but in a good way.

and exclusions in FSMA should take the training we offer through Extension. I always say that if everyone can take a food safety class it will go further than all of these rules, and this even applies to consumers.

If you touch food, you should have some basic knowledge of food safety, and really most of us don’t. And that’s okay too, but the biggest thing you can do is just go through a class. It’s really handy to learn some of these basic practices. Then you’re aware as you’re doing things, it literally can save somebody’s life. It’s a way to think about it, and just to be aware.

Our farm, we’re always growing, we’re trying to get bigger and better every year. We love doing that, and we love growing. Most of all I want to circle back to thanking Extension. Without Extension’s resources’ we wouldn’t have access to science-based, unbiased information. It really helps us incredibly.

Even farms that have a lot of exemptions and exclusions in FSMA should take the training we offer through Extension. I always say that if everyone can take a food safety class it will go further than all of these rules, and this even applies to consumers.

If you touch food, you should have some basic knowledge of food safety, and really most of us don’t. And that’s okay too, but the biggest thing you can do is just go through a class. It’s really handy to learn some of these basic practices. Then you’re aware as you’re doing things, it literally can save somebody’s life. It’s a way to think about it, and just to be aware.

Our farm, we’re always growing, we’re trying to get bigger and better every year. We love doing that, and we love grow- ing. Most of all I want to circle back to thanking Extension. Without Extension’s resources’ we wouldn’t have access to science-based, unbiased information. It really helps us incredibly.

Article by Bruce Gresczyk Jr. and Diane Wright Hirsch

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.

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.