By Scott Monroe, Food Safety Educator, Purdue Extension
One of the hottest topics in the produce world in recent years has been food safety. Outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with fresh produce, the Food Safety and Modernization Act, and consumer expectations have all encouraged growers to become familiar with Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs). These are the accepted practices that produce growers use to reduce the risk of contamination by a foodborne pathogen.
Many people grow and consume produce from their home gardens. When products are consumed at home, growers are free to do whatever they want. However, when we start to introduce produce into the public food supply, be it at the farmers market, through a CSA, or through a wholesale distributor, we accept an increased level responsibility for our products. Fortunately, the majority of GAPs boil down to good old-fashioned common sense backed up by scientific research. Regardless of farm size or products, guarding the public (and our own) food supply against accidental contamination by a foodborne pathogen comes down to four areas of focus.
1. Water – We use water for multiple activities in agriculture. When using water for irrigation, make sure the water comes from a reliable source. Those using surface water (such as ponds or creeks) for irrigation should have their water tested. Use only potable, or drinking, water for postharvest operations such as washing produce.
2. Animal Products – Farmers have used manure for centuries as a source of plant nutrients. However, manure can also contain pathogens. If using manure, a window of 90-120 days is recommended between application and harvest of crops. Always incorporate manure if possible. The best strategy is to fall-apply manure, incorporate, and sow a cover crop to prevent soil loss. Watch for accidental applications. Remember that the two-year old running around the garden in a cloth diaper presents as great a risk for contamination as a loaded honey wagon!
3. Workers – Regardless of whether you are employing 500 workers in multiple fields or using the garden as a “life-learning experience” for your kids, the principle is the same; make sure the workers are healthy. Sick workers should not be around or handle produce. Workers should also be trained to cover any cuts or scrapes and to wash their hands before entering fields or gardens to tend plants or harvest.
4. Wild and Domestic Animals – Unless you are using them for pulling implements, animals should not be allowed in production areas. We can’t keep all wildlife out of the fields and gardens. However, we can monitor for excessive activity and manage when populations get too large. Pets and other domestic animals should not be allowed in production areas. I’ve seen some of the things dogs like to roll in. I’m not sure I want that brushing up against my tomatoes!
By taking a common-sense approach to food safety, and focusing on these four areas, we can reduce the risk of accidentally introducing pathogens into our own, or someone else’s, food supply and do our part to maintain the reputation of the produce grown in our region.
By Nick Rogers, Internal Communications Coordinator, Purdue Extension
The sixth generation in his family to work with produce, Scott Monroe grew up on a southwest Indiana watermelon farm. So it seems only natural that his Purdue Extension career would lead to his latest appointment as Purdue Extension Food Safety Educator, which became effective January 1.
“Produce is a multimillion-dollar industry in Indiana, and I want to do what I can to help growers navigate food-safety challenges, and maintain or bolster this industry,” Monroe says. “Obviously, we want to also keep people from getting sick. I don’t know any farmer who finishes that second cup of coffee, goes outside, stretches real big and says, ‘What a great day to make someone sick.’ ”
Formerly a Daviess County ANR Educator, Monroe now works out of the Southwest Purdue Agricultural Center near Vincennes. This area of Indiana is home to a majority of the state’s produce crops. However, Monroe’s appointment spans all 92 counties to assist a diverse collection of growers — from small family operations who run roadside stands to large companies shipping produce cross-country.
Produce food safety has been a hot topic in recent years. In 2011, the Food Safety Modernization Act shifted the federal focus of regulation from responding to outbreaks of foodborne illness to preventing them. There have also been heavily publicized outbreaks of Listeria in cantaloupe and, hitting closer to home, an outbreak of Salmonella traced to a cantaloupe farm in southern Indiana.
“The food safety issue can be complicated, so my main goal is to be a point of first connection for produce growers who have issues or questions concerning good agricultural practices and food safety,” Monroe says. “I can also facilitate help with questions about other agricultural products, and I plan to help catalyze applied research efforts in food safety.”
Although Monroe only has a few weeks under his belt, he has plenty of appearances planned (including a presentation for the upcoming 3rd Annual Indiana Small Farm Conference on writing food safety plans), hands-on activities for when the weather improves, and prior experience in the field.
Monroe’s work in this area started in 2009 when he attended a workshop, hosted by the University of Illinois Extension, about important food safety issues coming down the pike. He and Extension Specialist Liz Maynard brought the information home and used it to form an Issue-Based Action Team around the issue, including Educators, Specialists, and regulatory and industry personnel as part of the team. Together, the team developed an introductory Good Agriculture Practices (GAPs) workshop that nearly 1,000 statewide participants have attended and that is recognized by the Indiana State Department of Health as meetings its requirements for produce food safety training. Prior to his formal appointment, Monroe spent the 2013 and 2014 growing seasons working directly with Indiana produce growers, with emphasis on the cantaloupe and watermelon industries in Indiana.
“What led me to this was really the opportunity to contribute to the industry in a way that helps Indiana farmers and increases the safety factors of their food as a result,” Monroe says.
By J. Scott Monroe, Food Safety Educator, Purdue Extension
Several years ago I was working for one of our local watermelon producers. The harvest was in full swing and the pace around the farm was hectic, bordering on manic. In the midst of the craziness, I was handed a folder by the boss. It contained information about a company that he had been working with in California. His hope was to sell them watermelons for processing, but he had run headlong into the company’s internal produce food safety program. Apparently, in order for us to sell them our melons, we needed to fill out a food safety questionnaire, engage in something called Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), and go through an audit by the company’s food safety inspector.
Thus began my leap into the world of produce food safety. Having grown up on a produce farm, and being a sixth-generation melon person, I was quite skeptical of the whole process. However, being a dutiful employee, I took the boss’s file, reviewed it, and started a new file on my computer. I won’t tell you what I named it, but it rhymed with “GAP”. Who knew that a dozen years later, I would be employed by Purdue Extension to work in the area of produce food safety across the state?
As I work with produce growers, many of them approach the food safety issue with the same skepticism that I had that day on the farm. Many lament the additional work generated by a food safety program, stating that they’ve never personally made anyone sick and are too busy to have additional responsibilities laid upon them. Behind most of the comments, however, is the same basic question; does this really matter and, if so, then why? To answer those questions, I’ve put together a list of the top three reasons why I think food safety matters and should be a concern for ALL produce growers:
1. Product quality – Coming from a farm background, and having been around produce growers my entire life, I have yet to meet any farmer that begins his day by finishing that second cup of coffee, stretching, looking out over the fields, and declaring, “What a great day to make someone sick”. It just doesn’t happen. However, looking at CDC data, one sees that many of the foodborne pathogens that have traditionally associated with other agricultural commodities (Listeria, Salmonella, E. coli) are showing up with increasing frequency in produce. We can debate where it’s coming from until we’re blue in the face. However, the fact remains that if we, as growers, wish to continue to produce a quality product that meets consumer expectations, then we need to be aware of this issue and do everything we can to prevent something from accidently getting into our products.
2. Consumer and buyer expectations – Consumers expect a relatively safe food supply. Having worked overseas in areas where one is warned not to eat anything raw as soon as they get off the plane, I’ve come to realize that the mere fact that consumers have the option of eating fresh produce in this country means that growers are doing a lot of things right. Due to food safety issues, fresh produce is not an option enjoyed by consumers worldwide. That being said, in this country, consumers’ expectations of a safe food supply are increasing. These expectations are being expressed through produce buyers, many of whom now require third-party certifications prior to purchasing large quantities of produce from growers.
3. Liability – The Food Safety and Modernization Act was passed in 2011. Fruit and vegetable growers are currently waiting for FDA to publish the final version of the Produce Rule under this act. Contained within the Act are exemptions for small farms that sell direct to local consumers, grocery stores, and restaurants. The language is frequently referred to as the Tester Amendment. This language has given rise to much debate as to who should fall under the Act and who should not. In practical terms, it really doesn’t matter whether a produce grower is exempt from regulations or not. If an outbreak of foodborne illness is traced to a specific farm, then the implicated grower will face the same liability as any other grower, regardless of size. Should an outbreak of foodborne illness be traced back to a specific farm, an active and aggressive food safety program will help to demonstrate that the grower was acting in good faith.
Whether you grow fruits and vegetables commercially and send produce out by the truckload or simply plant a little extra in the garden for the farmers’ market, produce food safety is an issue that will continue to affect all growers. Please feel free to contact me or the Purdue Extension Educator in your county if you would like information on how to get started with produce food safety and GAPs.
Scott Monroe is a food safety educator with Purdue Extension at the Southwest Purdue Agricultural Center and can be reached at 812-886-0198.
Looking for GAPs A to Z Training that meets Indiana State Dept. of Health (ISDH) expectations for training for wholesale produce growers?
The session at Indiana Horticultural Congress, Tuesday, January 20, 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. "Food Safety Focus on Cantaloupe" will meet this requirement!
There will be information relevant for all fruits and veggies, not just cantaloupe.
If you register for the Indiana Hort Congress there is no additional charge to attend this session.
Preregistration for the IHC is closed, but you may register in on-site. See www.inhortcongress.org for more information.
The online version of GAPs A to Z training will be introduced in a separate session on Tuesday evening, from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. This online course also meets the requirements of ISDH. There is a charge to take the online course that must be paid by credit or debit card when you sign up for the course at distance.purdue.edu/gaps. In Tuseday's evening session we will demonstrate how to sign up and navigate the online course. Participants can start taking the course on their own computer, and complete it at a later date.
Whether you've taken basic GAPs training or not, don't forget to check out the Food Safety Update Session on Tuesday morning:
Indiana Horticultural Congress
Wyndham Indianapolis West
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
9:30 a.m. Federal Food Safety Regulations for Farm and Packinghouses: Where are
Manpreet Singh, Purdue University, Dept. of Food Science
10:00 What’s New with the Indiana State Produce Safety Initiative
Jennifer Coleman and Joanna Beck, Indiana State Dept. of Health
10:45 New and Remodeled Packing Houses for Food Safety: How We Did It
Mike Garwood, Garwood Orchards
William Harriman, William Harriman Farms
Scott Monroe, Purdue Extension
11:30 Fresh Produce Safety Research in the NC Tomato Production Environment
Chris Gunter, North Carolina State University, Dept. of Horticulture
FAQs about GAPs A to Z Training and ISDH Expectations
Q. I took GAPS A to Z previously and have a certificate of attendance. Is it necessary to attend again or renew?
A. No. At this time ISDH only asks that food safety training has been obtained.
Q. This is the first I've heard of any requirement. What's the deal?
A. ISDH began the Farm Produce Safety Initiative a few years ago. As part of the initiative, farmers who wholesale produce that is likely to be eaten raw are asked to register and get trained in on-farm food safety practices.
For full information check out the ISDH Produce Safey Initiative Site at www.in.gov/isdh/25773.htm, and see the fact sheet for producers at www.in.gov/isdh/files/Produce_Grower_Registration_Fact_Sheet(1).pdf, and the registration form at forms.in.gov/Download.aspx?id=10956
Looking forward to seeing people at the Indiana Hort Congress!
Looking for a GAPs course? Purdue's Good Agricultural Practices A to Z training is available as an online course.
Individuals may take the course from their own broad-band connected computer.
The course meets current requirements of the Indiana State Department of Health for training in Good Agricultural Practices that is required of fruit and vegetable producers who sell fresh produce to groceries, restaurants, institutions, and other buyers who are not the end consumer. Individuals who take the course and complete online assessments successfully will receive a certificate to document that they have taken the course. The cost of the course is $30. Individuals may register for the course at www.distance.purdue.edu/gaps.
This course is based on GAPs A to Z workshops Purdue has offered around the state and in webinars over the last three years. Course participants view recorded presentations about health and hygiene, water, animals and animal products, sanitation on the farm, documentation and recordkeeping, and farm food safety plans. In order to receive a course certificate, participants must answer assessment questions at the end of each topic and get at least 90% correct. Participants can watch presentations and retake assessments as many times as necessary. Access to course materials expires after three months. If the course isn’t completed within three months of registration, participants will have to reregister and repay for the course.
For more information about the online course, contact Scott Monroe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about the ISDH registration and training requirement for wholesale fruit and vegetable producers, visit http://www.in.gov/isdh/25773.htm or contact an ISDH Farm Food Safety Consultant at 317-234-8569.
Did you know the FSMA produce rule will require an
environmental impact statement (EIS) before it is implemented? The FDA decided that there are likely to be
environmental consequences of the rule, and so plans to does the EIS. The FDA
is accepting comments about what issues should be considered for the EIS. The
deadline for comments is March 14, 2014. Learn more from the Federal Register here https://federalregister.gov/a/2013-20087
The proposed produce rule for the Food Safety Modernization
Act received over 17,000 comments! Now the FDA is sorting through the comments
and separating them into issue areas. As officials develop responses, we may
see new fact sheets on the FDA website to clarify parts of the rule that are
confusing. That would be helpful.