Preparing small and mid-size growers of fruits and vegetables for on-farm food safety certification

Final Report for ENE09-113

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2009: $162,119.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Dr. Joan Thomson
Penn State University
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Project Information

Summary:

Over the past decade, highly publicized multi-state outbreaks of foodborne diseases causing illnesses and several deaths have been traced to contaminated fresh produce such as leafy greens, sliced tomatoes, green onions, cantaloupes. Follow-up investigations found that unsanitary field or packinghouse conditions were the cause of contamination. Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) reduce the risk of on-farm contamination of fresh produce during production, harvesting, and distribution. GAPs are voluntary standards that support best practices for worker hygiene and health, proper use of water and manure, livestock and wildlife control, pre- and post-harvest sanitation and traceability. Over the course of this project, commercial buyers of fresh produce, particularly supermarkets, have increasingly demanded, as a condition of purchase, that their suppliers provide evidence of GAP compliance, develop a food safety plan, carry out on-farm food safety inspections, or become third-party certified. Targeting growers selling to supermarkets, our training and educational resources focused on how to document GAP compliance. From 2009 – 2013, 1653 fresh produce growers participated in one of 34 Penn State Extension workshops “Keeping Fresh Produce Safe Using Good Agricultural Practices” offered at 52 locations across the Commonwealth. These five-hour workshops focused on the knowledge and skills growers need to implement GAPs, and how to conduct on-farm food safety inspections and prepare for audits. Each participant received a notebook of educational resources and if requested, a certificate of participation, providing evidence of their GAPs training. One-on-one technical assistance on how to write a food safety plan reached 57 growers.. As interest among growers in documenting GAPs increased, a workshop “Writing a Food Safety Plan Based on the Harmonized GAP Audit,” was developed and offered three times to 83 growers in 2013. Plus 12 Extension educators participated in a train-the-trainer program.

 

As a result of their training, growers indicated greater GAPs knowledge and increased confidence in implementing GAPs on their farms, see Appendix C. Based on the 2011 pre/post workshop evaluations (n=176) with participating growers, just 17 had already written a food safety plan, 6 had carried out on-farm self-inspections, and 6 had had an audit prior to participating in 1 of the 8 workshops. Among the 132 growers responding to these same questions on the six-month follow-up study, 39 reported having written/updated a food safety plan, 48 had carried out an on-farm self-inspection and 21 had had an audit. Eight educators are now taking leadership to provide GAP training at local workshops across the Commonwealth.

Educational resources and tools developed by the project include: a Harmonized GAP Plan template, a step-by-step form based on the USDA Harmonized GAP audit, and a Sample GAP Plan. These are available on the Penn State food safety website http://extension.psu.edu/food-safety/farm, which had 30,901 page views between 10/1/2012 and 9/30/2013. Resources for trainers, available at https://sharepoint.ag.psu.edu/coext/foodsafety/GAP, include PowerPoint presentations; handouts on using chlorine sanitizers in produce wash tanks, how to have irrigation water tested for E. coli bacteria, labeling and traceability on a produce farm, and how to get a GAP audit; evaluation surveys; and workshop feedback. A “Food Safety Field Training Kit for Fresh Produce Handlers” (in English/Spanish and English/Creole) for on-farm training of harvesters and handlers is available for purchase. To date, 2,650 kits have been distributed at Penn State on-farm food safety workshops or sold to Extension educators and government agencies in Florida, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Tennessee.

Performance Target:

1700 Pennsylvania produce growers will receive GAP educational information; 600 will attend GAP workshops and 300 will write a food safety plan; 150 will submit to and pass a USDA audit.

Introduction:

Justification. Continuing multi-state outbreaks of foodborne disease have been traced to contaminated fresh produce. Green onions, sliced tomatoes, bagged spinach, shredded lettuce, cantaloupes, and chili peppers can be contaminated with Salmonella, E. coli 0157:H7, Norovirus, Listeria, or other human pathogens. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) estimates that annually 1 in 6 Americans (48 million people) become ill, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases. Follow-up investigations indicate unsanitary field or packinghouse conditions are often the cause of this contamination.

Standards to prevent on-farm contamination of produce are known as Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs). GAPs are standards for the safe production, harvesting, and handling of fresh produce. Voluntary GAP standards in the FDA guidance document “Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables” recommend best practices for worker hygiene and health, proper use of water and manure, livestock and wildlife control, and pre- and post-harvest equipment sanitation.

The initial response for GAP compliance has come from the private sector. Commercial buyers of fresh produce are increasingly demanding, as a condition of purchase, that suppliers provide evidence of GAP training, a food safety plan documenting how each standard is met, on-farm self inspections, and/or submit to a fee-based independent, third-party audit demonstrating proof of GAP compliance. Farms that pass an audit are granted third-party certification (TPC), valid for one year, and become approved suppliers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers a voluntary GAP audit based on the United Fresh Produce Association’s Harmonized GAP standards that most commercial buyers have accepted as adequate. From the viewpoint of the buyer, GAP compliance strengthens customer loyalty and increases market share while reducing the risk of potential lawsuits should a foodborne outbreak occur.

Concerns over the safety of our food supply have led many to believe that mandatory farm food safety inspection programs are the answer to ensuring safer foods. In 2011, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) [P.L. No.111-353] which requires the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue mandatory safety standards for fresh produce. FDA released its initial, proposed regulations “Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption” in early 2013; FDA is now reviewing the comments it received. Currently buyers are specifying the GAP practices and documentation that growers must follow to maintain market access; these protocols might be modified annually. On-farm food safety regulations will continue to evolve.

For produce growers, significant resources can be involved in complying with GAP standards, not only for potential new equipment and facilities but also dedication of time for training, development of a food safety plan, and record keeping. Because of potential costs, a concern among smaller scale growers is that their farms will be disproportionally affected and thus they will be excluded from wholesale market channels.

Growers have also expressed concern that several audits may be required when they sell to multiple buyers, each with their own preferred audit company, or when more than one type of produce is grown. Although smaller growers feel that TPC is a threat to their economic stability, most who sell to wholesale markets are accepting the reality that GAP audits will become the industry standard. Yet these growers need assistance to understand GAPs and TPC procedures so that they can remain competitive in the marketplace. The implementation and documentation of GAP standards will be the norm for most produce growers selling to wholesale markets regardless of farm size, location, or financial status. Thus, the demand for GAP and TPC compliance training can be expected to increase dramatically in the near future. Teaching what is important is not enough. Specific skills must be taught on how to document GAP compliance through a written plan and the steps necessary to attain TPC status. As requirements for GAP compliance continue to increase, Extension can play a crucial role in helping growers maintain their current market outlets by reducing their food safety risks.

Approach. This project’s focus was on growers who sell produce to wholesale grocery markets in Pennsylvania by accessing growers through the grocery chains to which they sell their produce, a unique approach to address on-farm food safety issues. General farm audiences have expressed little interest in GAPs information; such presentations have usually been poorly attended and therefore often cancelled. Most Extension educators in agriculture have focused on agricultural production issues other than GAPs. By identifying critically affected local produce growers, those who must be trained and/or certified on GAP standards to maintain their markets, the probability of successfully reaching the intended audience—fresh produce growers–was enhanced.

The second aspect of our approach was to use the GAP standards on which the USDA audit is based. GAP standards provide adequate criteria to verify safe farming practices. They also provide a single set of nationwide GAP standards and TPC procedures, simplifying development of a GAP curriculum. In addition, audit results are easily verified because they are made public on the USDA AMS (Agricultural Marketing Service) web site http://tinyurl.com/9qz6mos and the price is reasonable, usually about $400 per audit. USDA AMS in association with state departments of agriculture offer this voluntary audit program. In Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA) will reimburse the cost for a grower’s initial successful USDA audit. Also PDA expressed interest in working with us. USDA trains its auditors housed within PDA but these auditors do not train growers.

In 2012, the PSU/PDA Food Safety Resource Center was established. The Center, consisting of Penn State and state, federal, and private partners, will support collaborative food safety Extension and research projects, including farm food safety. Its initial appropriation was $100,000.

Feedback from fresh produce growers attending Penn State GAPs workshops indicates that for 76 to 80% of these growers, Penn State Extension is their primary source for GAPs information followed by growers associations (approximately 50%) and other farmers, see 2012 evaluation report; 2013 evaluation report, see Appendix H.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Peggy Fogarty-Harnish
  • Luke LaBorde
  • Roshan Nayak
  • Dr. Rama Radhakrishna
  • Daniel Tobin

Milestones

Milestone #1 (click to expand/collapse)
Accomplishments:

Publications

Milestone 1: Build communication pathways and increase awareness

Project personnel updated and revised GAP educational resources, including training videos, news articles for print and radio, and the “Food Safety Field Training Kit for Fresh Produce Handlers” to make them more user friendly and to support educational programming. These GAP educational materials remain easily accessible through the updated, open-access Penn State Farm Food Safety website http://extension.psu.edu/foodsafety/farm available to any stakeholders in the food system interested in the safety of the food supply, see attached Project Information Product. All of these information sources were benchmarked against the USDA Harmonized GAP audit. In 2013, the Sample Harmonized Food Safety Plan was the resource most frequently accessed—1077 views followed by the template for a Harmonized Food Safety Plan (930 views). Presentations at the annual meetings of the State Horticulture and Vegetable Growers Associations continue to alert growers and others in the food system to the likelihood that market outlets will increasingly implement their own food safety policies that are more rigorous than the minimum federal standards are likely to be.

To introduce GAPs to growers selling fresh produce to supermarkets, 32 Produce Food Safety Awareness sessions, each ranging from 60 – 90 minutes and involving 1,243 participants, primarily growers, were conducted in multiple locations across the state during 2012. In 2013, this presentation was part of Extension programming at 8 locations, reaching 448 growers.

Additional project outreach included distribution of 15,000 GAPs (Farm Food Safety: Keep Fresh Produce Safe Using Good Agricultural Practices) brochures through Penn State and PDA (Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture) events; regular articles in monthly Extension newsletters: The Fruit Times and The Small Fruit and Vegetable Gazette; and periodic press releases on GAPs and project-related activities have been picked up by the agricultural press such as Lancaster Farming with a circulation of about 57,750.

GAP Extension programming was and continues to be shared through national meetings including the Produce Safety Alliance training conference and the professional associations of project personnel. The Extension food safety specialist serves on the United Fresh Produce Association’s GAPs Harmonization Calibration committee. Harmonization is an effort to provide one audit that fulfills the essential criteria of the various national and international audits that currently exist and through which TPC can be obtained.

Through all of these efforts, well more than 1700 produce growers have had opportunities to learn about GAPs.

In order to better understand the specific food safety policies of individual supermarkets, communication is continuing directly with Pennsylvania supermarkets as well as through the PFMA (Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association). Regular communication is also maintained with food safety personnel and auditors with the PDA (Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture). To better reach Amish and Mennonite (plain sect) growers, field-based Extension educators are collaborating with managers of auctions and member cooperatives through which these growers regularly market their produce. The relationships among these managers and Extension field-based educators are based on on-going communication and trust. Research carried out with supermarkets, consumers, and produce suppliers has informed and been applied to improve Extension’s on-farm food safety programming. Perceptions among Pennsylvania consumers on food safety are reported in the August 2012 Food Control article Consumer Perceptions of Produce Safety: A Study of Pennsylvania (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foodcont.2012.01.031). In addition, the educational resources described below, have been adapted to be consistent with the Harmonized GAP standards. The Pre- and Post-Harvest Checklists include the new requirements in the Harmonized GAP audit.


Milestone 2: Workshops and educational resources

Initially the project targeted fresh produce growers selling their produce directly to supermarkets; these markets were increasingly mandating that their vendors meet the markets’ requirements for GAPs. To increase growers’ understanding of GAPs and acquire the skills and confidence to implement GAPs on their farms, Penn State Extension through this project conducted 34 workshops titled “Keeping Fresh Produce Safe Using Good Agricultural Practices” at 52 locations for 1653 grower participants from 2009 through 2013.

Other educational and follow-up activities included:

2009 – Two GAP Videoconferences: 20 locations, each 5 hours, 401 participants, 221 evaluations completed: 55.1% response rate
Growers’ follow-up survey: 282 mailed; 156 returned: 55.3% response rate
Supermarket survey: n=28; 15 responses: 54% response rate

2010 – GAP certificate Workshops: 3 locations, each 5 hours, 300 participants, 150 evaluations/72 responses: 48% response rate
Adobe Connect — Train-the-trainer: 12 field-based Extension educators

2011 – GAP certificate Workshops: 8 locations, each 5 hours, 219 participants, 176 evaluations: 80.4% response rate
Growers’ follow-up survey: 214 contacted, 144 responses: 67.3% response rate

2012 – GAP certificate Workshops: 15 locations, each 5 hours, 582 participants, 330 evaluations/263 responses: 79.7% response rate
Food safety awareness sessions: 32 locations, 60-90 minutes, 1,243 participants Individual technical assistance to write food safety plans: 57 growers On-farm mock audit: 3 farms, 68 growers

2013 – GAP certificate Workshops: 5 locations, each 5 hours, 151 participants, 120 evaluations/103 responses: 85.8% response rate
Food safety awareness sessions: 12 locations, 60-90 minutes, 448 participants Webinar 5/31/13: 30 participants, archived—339 views by 9/30/13
Supermarket survey: n= 20; 12 responses: response rate 60.0% 

During the project, greater numbers of plain sect growers began attending the workshops. In 2012, trainers estimated that approximately 60% of the 582 participants were plain sect growers. These growers not only use animals in production and harvesting, they often market their produce through auctions and member cooperatives; thus, these growers are less likely to sell their produce directly to consumers. These marketing practices make it likely that these growers will not be exempt from the on-farm food safety regulations which eventually will be implemented by the Food and Drug Administration under the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act [P.L. No. 111-353]. Currently, growers are required to meet the on-farm food safety requirements of the markets through which they sell their produce.
 
Collaborating with the managers and boards of directors of auctions and member cooperatives, local educators identified the specific GAPs standards on which the training for plain sect growers should focus. During spring 2013, five “Keeping fresh produce safe using Good Agricultural Practices” workshops tailored to plain sect farmers were conducted with 151 participants. These workshops provided the technical information growers need to know to properly implement and document GAPs on their farms. Addressing topics on potential on-farm contamination, the training covers health and hygiene, water usage, animals and manure, harvest and post harvest practices, traceability protocols, writing a food safety plan to document GAPs, and mock recalls.

The evaluation survey (Appendix G) completed before and after five of the six 2013 workshops by 103 of 120 participants (an 85.8% response rate) asked questions related to the participants GAPs knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors. First, the survey asked growers to indicate the GAP-related activities they had carried out during the prior–2012–growing season. Only 20.2% (n=18) of the respondents reported that they had written or updated a food safety plan and 44.9% (n=40) had conducted their own food safety inspection during 2012. Just three respondents (n=3.3%) indicated that they had had a third-party audit (TPC) done on their farms for the 2012 growing season.

For the ten true/false knowledge statements to which participants responded both before and after the workshops, the overall mean was 5.95 (out of 10) before the workshops, raising to 7.87 following the workshops, an increase of 1.92. For eight of the ten statements, correct responses increased from before to after the workshops, indicating a better understanding of GAPs. However, correct responses did not increase for every knowledge statement. For two statements, one dealing with the use of manure; the other with wild animals entering produce fields, correct responses declined, although for both statements each was answered correctly by 60% of those responding.

Respondents were also asked to indicate their confidence in three specific GAP-related skills: writing a food safety plan, conducting a self audit, and preparing for a third-party audit. Before the workshops, just 12.9% (n=9) of the 70 responding indicated that they were either confident or very confident in writing a food safety plan. After the workshops, 55.8% (n=39) expressed this level of confidence. Before the workshops, 24.3% (n=17) of 70 respondents indicated that they were either confident or very confident in conducting a food safety inspection which increased to 65.7% (n=46) following the workshops. Among 69 respondents, 14 (20.2%) were either confident or very confident in preparing for a third-party audit before the workshops which increased to 31 (44.9%) after the workshops. This pattern of responses is consistent with earlier evaluations. More participating growers indicate the greatest confidence in conducting an on-farm food safety inspection than in either of the other two GAPs related activities: writing a food safety plan or preparing for a third-party audit. In follow-ups with workshop participants, more growers actually completed on-farm inspections than either of the other two activities.

On a five-point Likert scale ranging from 1 “not at all a challenge” to 5 “very much a challenge,” more respondents (n=42 of 87; 48.2%) indicated cost was more challenging than their GAPs knowledge (n=20 of 90; 22.2%) or their skills (n=16 of 86; 18.6%) to implement. The evaluation report for the winter 2013 GAPs workshops is attached, see Appendix H.

Consistently between two-thirds to three-fourths of the participants at each workshop indicate that they have not previously participated in farm food safety training. These numbers have remained consistent over the life of the project, suggesting many more growers can be trained.


Milestone 3: Continued technical assistance and research – On-going

In addition to the five-hour intensive workshops focusing on GAPs knowledge and implementation, other educational opportunities and resources were developed and offered. Produce Food Safety Awareness. Incorporated into other agricultural programs offered by Penn State Extension, this PowerPoint presentation has been offered multiple times. This PowerPoint is available on SharePoint for field-based Extension educators to use. The presentation introduces growers to GAPs and its importance for them, as growers, to be informed so they can produce safe food as well as meet the expectations of those to whom they sell their fresh produce.

Webinars. An “Update on the New (proposed) FDA Produce Safety Standards: Issues of Importance for Pennsylvania Produce Growers” was offered in May 2013; most of the 30 participants had previously attended on-farm food safety training offered by Penn State. Recorded and available on-line at http://extension.psu.edu/food/safety/news/2013/update-on-the-new-fda-produce-safety-standards, the webinar has been accessed by 339 individuals through September 2013. Another webinar “Update on the Harmonized GAP Audit” was offered for eight field-based Extension educators increasingly involved in GAPs programming.

Developing a Food Safety Plan. Initiated to address the needs of growers who are preparing for a third-party audit, this training focuses on writing such a plan based on the Harmonized GAP audit. Piloted twice in early 2013, 61 growers attended; 40 0f 52 growers at one of these workshops completed the evaluation, see Appendix I. After this workshop, the highest increase in growers’ confidence was observed for food safety writing skills; 83% of the respondents indicated that they were confident in writing a food safety plan. In addition the majority of the respondents indicated that they have adequate knowledge to write their own food safety plans as well as prepare for a GAP audit. Before the workshops, comparatively few respondents agreed they had adequate knowledge to carry out GAP activities. Based on their feedback, the workshops successfully delivered the required GAP information to growers to write a food safety plan and prepare for a GAP audit. In November, 2013, the workshop was held for 22 attendees, see Appendix J. This training is going to attract growers who had previously attended the GAP certificate training discussed under Milestone 2.

To support how to write a food safety plan, the following handouts were developed: Harmonized GAP Plan template, a step-by-step form based on the USDA Harmonized GAP audit and a Sample GAP Plan, a written plan developed as an example of a GAP plan compliant with the USDA Harmonized GAP audit. Several template forms and logs to meet documentation requirements are also available on the website.

Food Safety web site. The resources used in the above trainings are available on the Penn State food safety web site http://extension.psu.edu/food-safety/farm. In addition to a template for the USDA Harmonized GAP audit and instructions to draft a plan using this template, other educational resources on GAPS as well as future trainings are posted. From October 2012 through September 2013, 1077 individuals viewed the sample GAP plan posted and 930 viewed the template. Based on five farm groups and member cooperatives in just Lancaster County, Extension educators estimate that 174 growers used the template. Google analytics data for this web site for October 1, 2012-September 30, 2013 indicate 30,901 page views and 1:22 minutes average time per page. A time greater than one minute suggests that the page was actually read. To access these resources, click on the attached Project Information Product for the food safety web site.

Some resources on the site are for sale including “The Food Safety Field Training Kit for Fresh Produce Handlers” (Guia de entrenamiento en seguridad de los alimentos para productores de vegetales frescos), a portable illustrated 19-page flip chart on personal hygiene and practices, practices that contribute to produce contamination. Used for on-farm training of harvesters and handlers, the kit is printed on 11”X 17” laminated cardstock in English/Spanish and English/Creole. To date, 2,650 have been distributed at Penn State on-farm food safety workshops or sold to Extension educators and government agencies in Florida, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Tennessee. For further information on the flip chart see the Project Information Product posting at the end of the report.

SharePoint. https://sharepoint.ag.psu.edu/coext/foodsafety/GAP is a website that can be accessed by those involved in on-farm food safety programming. The site is populated primarily with resources a trainer would use at a GAPs workshop such as PowerPoint presentations, handouts supporting the training, evaluation surveys, and workshop feedback. Handouts include how I get a GAP audit, using chlorine sanitizers in produce wash tanks, how to have your irrigation water tested for E. coli bacteria, and labeling and traceability on a produce farm.

Third-Party Certification (TPC). Growers who pass the USDA Harmonized GAP Audit are listed on the web site http://tinyurl.com/9qz6mos of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). In 2013, 89 Pennsylvania farms were listed. Through feedback on their evaluations, 24 workshop participants indicated that they had become TPC during the 2011 and 2012 growing seasons. To maintain GAP certification, audits must be carried out annually.

In addition to the USDA audit, Equicert, a private company, conducts third-party Harmonized GAP audits. In 2013, Equicert confirmed that they had audited 193 farms in Pennsylvania of which 182 were in Lancaster County. The vast majority of these growers are members of a cooperative that requires its members to become TPC. Equicert estimated 90% of these growers had taken the Penn State on-farm food safety training and used the Penn State food safety plan template. Equicert finds the Penn State on-line guidelines useful, making the involved documentation more organized and convenient for both the grower and auditor.

Public Policy. As part of the state’s appropriation to Penn State during the 2013 legislative session, a Penn State Food Safety Resource Center has been established; its initial appropriation is $100,000. Funding such a Center recognizes the importance of safe food to the public.

Supermarket research. To better understand the policies which supermarkets are requiring their suppliers of fresh produce follow, an e-survey was conducted with Pennsylvania supermarkets in 2009, see Tobin, Thomson, LaBorde & Bagdonis, 2011, http://www.joe.org/joe/2011october/rb7.php. A second on-line survey was carried out with 20 Pennsylvania supermarkets in 2013; 12 markets responded. A supermarket is defined as a chain with at least 11 markets nationally. For population selection for this study, all supermarket chains with at least one store in Pennsylvania were included. An article in a professional journal discussing this study is forthcoming.

 

Performance Target Outcomes

Performance target outcome for service providers narrative:

Outcomes

During this project, 1653 growers participated in 34 Penn State Extension “Keeping Fresh Produce Safe Using Good Agricultural Practices” workshops offered at 52 locations across the Commonwealth. As a result of their participation, growers indicated greater GAPs knowledge and increased confidence in implementing GAPs on their farms, see Tables in Appendices G, H, I and J. However, greater knowledge and confidence does not necessarily lead to writing a food safety plan or seeking TPC. Growers are more likely to carry out a self inspection before either of the other two GAPs activities. Following through on any one of these GAP behaviors is most likely based on the expectations/requirements of the buyers to whom the growers sell. Growers want to maintain their markets.

Responses from 458 growers from 2011 through 2013 on their GAP-related activities indicate that 82 had written or updated a food safety plan, 120 had conducted a self-inspection, and 31 had had an audit. During 2013 on the USDA AMS website, 89 Pennsylvania farms have been listed. However which of these growers had participated in a Penn State on-farm food safety workshop is not known. In January 2009, 46 farms were listed as having passed the USDA audit on this web site. The USDA AMS web site only lists those who have passed the USDA audit. Other audits are available to growers and could be requested by the buyers to whom growers market their produce.
 

Over the life of the project, we identified consistent patterns in the participants’ responses in the post-workshops and six-month follow-ups. Participants consistently demonstrate increased GAP knowledge which, not unexpectedly, diminishes over time; see Appendix C table summarizing GAP knowledge statements. At the conclusion of the workshops, more participants indicated their intent to carry out GAP-related activities: update or write a food safety plan, carry out a food safety inspection, or have a third-party audit done on their farms than actually did so. For example following the 2012 winter GAPs workshops held prior to the 2012 growing season, 114 (51.8% of 220) participants indicated their intent to update or write a food safety plan. Just 18 (20.2% of 89) of those participating in the 2013 workshops reported they did so. When asked if they intended to conduct their own food safety inspection, 141 of 222 (63.5%) indicated their intent to do so. Yet 40 of 89 (44.9%) reported doing so. Just 3 of 90 (3.3%) report having a third-party audit done on their farms during the 2012 growing season although 43 of 213 (20.2%) indicated they intended to do so on their post-evaluations following the 2012 winter GAP workshops. 

Our research demonstrates that increases in GAP technical knowledge among growers does not necessarily translate into carrying out GAP-related activities, (Tobin, Thomson, LaBorde & Radhakrishna, 2013). Feedback from managers of auctions and member cooperatives indicates that fresh produce growers are now packing their produce in new, not previously used, cartons, a change these managers are applauding. Incorporating other incremental, low-risk changes linked to implementing GAPs on growers’ farms in future trainings may further support behavioral changes consistent with GAPs in the production, harvesting and marketing of fresh produce.

Additional outcomes

Given the differences in educational levels and cultural practices of plain sect growers from their English neighbors, both the educational resources and GAP workshops are being modified to better meet the educational needs of plain sect growers. Funding for a proposal, Development, delivery, and evaluation of a farm food safety program for plain sect growers of fresh produce, to develop a curriculum specifically addressing these growers needs is being sought. This program would take into account the unique field practices, culture, and learning styles of plain sect growers so that they could continue to market fresh produce through their preferred wholesale marketing channels.

In addition to this project, USDA specialty crops funding through the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has supported a part-time field-based GAPs coordinator.

A well trained work force is the best defense against food safety and sanitation lapses and the economic consequences that might result. Education and training for all segments of the food industry is, therefore, essential to realize the public health goals for safe food.

This project has reached its primary audience, fresh produce growers, through supermarkets, auctions and cooperatives. As a result, they are better prepared to maintain market access.

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Milestone 1: Build communication pathways and increase awareness

Project personnel updated and revised GAP educational resources, including training videos, news articles for print and radio, and the “Food Safety Field Training Kit for Fresh Produce Handlers” to make them more user friendly and to support educational programming. These GAP educational materials remain easily accessible through the updated, open-access Penn State Farm Food Safety website http://extension.psu.edu/foodsafety/farm available to any stakeholders in the food system interested in the safety of the food supply, see attached Project Information Product. All of these information sources were benchmarked against the USDA Harmonized GAP audit. In 2013, the Sample Harmonized Food Safety Plan was the resource most frequently accessed—1077 views followed by the template for a Harmonized Food Safety Plan (930 views). Presentations at the annual meetings of the State Horticulture and Vegetable Growers Associations continue to alert growers and others in the food system to the likelihood that market outlets will increasingly implement their own food safety policies that are more rigorous than the minimum federal standards are likely to be.

To introduce GAPs to growers selling fresh produce to supermarkets, 32 Produce Food Safety Awareness sessions, each ranging from 60 – 90 minutes and involving 1,243 participants, primarily growers, were conducted in multiple locations across the state during 2012. In 2013, this presentation was part of Extension programming at 8 locations, reaching 448 growers.

Additional project outreach included distribution of 15,000 GAPs (Farm Food Safety: Keep Fresh Produce Safe Using Good Agricultural Practices) brochures through Penn State and PDA (Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture) events; regular articles in monthly Extension newsletters: The Fruit Times and The Small Fruit and Vegetable Gazette; and periodic press releases on GAPs and project-related activities have been picked up by the agricultural press such as Lancaster Farming with a circulation of about 57,750.

GAP Extension programming was and continues to be shared through national meetings including the Produce Safety Alliance training conference and the professional associations of project personnel. The Extension food safety specialist serves on the United Fresh Produce Association’s GAPs Harmonization Calibration committee. Harmonization is an effort to provide one audit that fulfills the essential criteria of the various national and international audits that currently exist and through which TPC can be obtained.

Through all of these efforts, well more than 1700 produce growers have had opportunities to learn about GAPs.

In order to better understand the specific food safety policies of individual supermarkets, communication is continuing directly with Pennsylvania supermarkets as well as through the PFMA (Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association). Regular communication is also maintained with food safety personnel and auditors with the PDA (Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture). To better reach Amish and Mennonite (plain sect) growers, field-based Extension educators are collaborating with managers of auctions and member cooperatives through which these growers regularly market their produce. The relationships among these managers and Extension field-based educators are based on on-going communication and trust. Research carried out with supermarkets, consumers, and produce suppliers has informed and been applied to improve Extension’s on-farm food safety programming. Perceptions among Pennsylvania consumers on food safety are reported in the August 2012 Food Control article Consumer Perceptions of Produce Safety: A Study of Pennsylvania (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foodcont.2012.01.031). In addition, the educational resources described below, have been adapted to be consistent with the Harmonized GAP standards. The Pre- and Post-Harvest Checklists include the new requirements in the Harmonized GAP audit.


Milestone 2: Workshops and educational resources

Initially the project targeted fresh produce growers selling their produce directly to supermarkets; these markets were increasingly mandating that their vendors meet the markets’ requirements for GAPs. To increase growers’ understanding of GAPs and acquire the skills and confidence to implement GAPs on their farms, Penn State Extension through this project conducted 34 workshops titled “Keeping Fresh Produce Safe Using Good Agricultural Practices” at 52 locations for 1653 grower participants from 2009 through 2013.

Other educational and follow-up activities included:

2009 – Two GAP Videoconferences: 20 locations, each 5 hours, 401 participants, 221 evaluations completed: 55.1% response rate
Growers’ follow-up survey: 282 mailed; 156 returned: 55.3% response rate
Supermarket survey: n=28; 15 responses: 54% response rate

2010 – GAP certificate Workshops: 3 locations, each 5 hours, 300 participants, 150 evaluations/72 responses: 48% response rate
Adobe Connect — Train-the-trainer: 12 field-based Extension educators

2011 – GAP certificate Workshops: 8 locations, each 5 hours, 219 participants, 176 evaluations: 80.4% response rate
Growers’ follow-up survey: 214 contacted, 144 responses: 67.3% response rate

2012 – GAP certificate Workshops: 15 locations, each 5 hours, 582 participants, 330 evaluations/263 responses: 79.7% response rate
Food safety awareness sessions: 32 locations, 60-90 minutes, 1,243 participants Individual technical assistance to write food safety plans: 57 growers On-farm mock audit: 3 farms, 68 growers

2013 – GAP certificate Workshops: 5 locations, each 5 hours, 151 participants, 120 evaluations/103 responses: 85.8% response rate
Food safety awareness sessions: 12 locations, 60-90 minutes, 448 participants Webinar 5/31/13: 30 participants, archived—339 views by 9/30/13
Supermarket survey: n= 20; 12 responses: response rate 60.0% 

During the project, greater numbers of plain sect growers began attending the workshops. In 2012, trainers estimated that approximately 60% of the 582 participants were plain sect growers. These growers not only use animals in production and harvesting, they often market their produce through auctions and member cooperatives; thus, these growers are less likely to sell their produce directly to consumers. These marketing practices make it likely that these growers will not be exempt from the on-farm food safety regulations which eventually will be implemented by the Food and Drug Administration under the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act [P.L. No. 111-353]. Currently, growers are required to meet the on-farm food safety requirements of the markets through which they sell their produce.
 
Collaborating with the managers and boards of directors of auctions and member cooperatives, local educators identified the specific GAPs standards on which the training for plain sect growers should focus. During spring 2013, five “Keeping fresh produce safe using Good Agricultural Practices” workshops tailored to plain sect farmers were conducted with 151 participants. These workshops provided the technical information growers need to know to properly implement and document GAPs on their farms. Addressing topics on potential on-farm contamination, the training covers health and hygiene, water usage, animals and manure, harvest and post harvest practices, traceability protocols, writing a food safety plan to document GAPs, and mock recalls.

The evaluation survey (Appendix G) completed before and after five of the six 2013 workshops by 103 of 120 participants (an 85.8% response rate) asked questions related to the participants GAPs knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors. First, the survey asked growers to indicate the GAP-related activities they had carried out during the prior–2012–growing season. Only 20.2% (n=18) of the respondents reported that they had written or updated a food safety plan and 44.9% (n=40) had conducted their own food safety inspection during 2012. Just three respondents (n=3.3%) indicated that they had had a third-party audit (TPC) done on their farms for the 2012 growing season.

For the ten true/false knowledge statements to which participants responded both before and after the workshops, the overall mean was 5.95 (out of 10) before the workshops, raising to 7.87 following the workshops, an increase of 1.92. For eight of the ten statements, correct responses increased from before to after the workshops, indicating a better understanding of GAPs. However, correct responses did not increase for every knowledge statement. For two statements, one dealing with the use of manure; the other with wild animals entering produce fields, correct responses declined, although for both statements each was answered correctly by 60% of those responding.

Respondents were also asked to indicate their confidence in three specific GAP-related skills: writing a food safety plan, conducting a self audit, and preparing for a third-party audit. Before the workshops, just 12.9% (n=9) of the 70 responding indicated that they were either confident or very confident in writing a food safety plan. After the workshops, 55.8% (n=39) expressed this level of confidence. Before the workshops, 24.3% (n=17) of 70 respondents indicated that they were either confident or very confident in conducting a food safety inspection which increased to 65.7% (n=46) following the workshops. Among 69 respondents, 14 (20.2%) were either confident or very confident in preparing for a third-party audit before the workshops which increased to 31 (44.9%) after the workshops. This pattern of responses is consistent with earlier evaluations. More participating growers indicate the greatest confidence in conducting an on-farm food safety inspection than in either of the other two GAPs related activities: writing a food safety plan or preparing for a third-party audit. In follow-ups with workshop participants, more growers actually completed on-farm inspections than either of the other two activities.

On a five-point Likert scale ranging from 1 “not at all a challenge” to 5 “very much a challenge,” more respondents (n=42 of 87; 48.2%) indicated cost was more challenging than their GAPs knowledge (n=20 of 90; 22.2%) or their skills (n=16 of 86; 18.6%) to implement. The evaluation report for the winter 2013 GAPs workshops is attached, see Appendix H.

Consistently between two-thirds to three-fourths of the participants at each workshop indicate that they have not previously participated in farm food safety training. These numbers have remained consistent over the life of the project, suggesting many more growers can be trained.


Milestone 3: Continued technical assistance and research – On-going

In addition to the five-hour intensive workshops focusing on GAPs knowledge and implementation, other educational opportunities and resources were developed and offered. Produce Food Safety Awareness. Incorporated into other agricultural programs offered by Penn State Extension, this PowerPoint presentation has been offered multiple times. This PowerPoint is available on SharePoint for field-based Extension educators to use. The presentation introduces growers to GAPs and its importance for them, as growers, to be informed so they can produce safe food as well as meet the expectations of those to whom they sell their fresh produce.

Webinars. An “Update on the New (proposed) FDA Produce Safety Standards: Issues of Importance for Pennsylvania Produce Growers” was offered in May 2013; most of the 30 participants had previously attended on-farm food safety training offered by Penn State. Recorded and available on-line at http://extension.psu.edu/food/safety/news/2013/update-on-the-new-fda-produce-safety-standards, the webinar has been accessed by 339 individuals through September 2013. Another webinar “Update on the Harmonized GAP Audit” was offered for eight field-based Extension educators increasingly involved in GAPs programming.

Developing a Food Safety Plan. Initiated to address the needs of growers who are preparing for a third-party audit, this training focuses on writing such a plan based on the Harmonized GAP audit. Piloted twice in early 2013, 61 growers attended; 40 0f 52 growers at one of these workshops completed the evaluation, see Appendix I. After this workshop, the highest increase in growers’ confidence was observed for food safety writing skills; 83% of the respondents indicated that they were confident in writing a food safety plan. In addition the majority of the respondents indicated that they have adequate knowledge to write their own food safety plans as well as prepare for a GAP audit. Before the workshops, comparatively few respondents agreed they had adequate knowledge to carry out GAP activities. Based on their feedback, the workshops successfully delivered the required GAP information to growers to write a food safety plan and prepare for a GAP audit. In November, 2013, the workshop was held for 22 attendees, see Appendix J. This training is going to attract growers who had previously attended the GAP certificate training discussed under Milestone 2.

To support how to write a food safety plan, the following handouts were developed: Harmonized GAP Plan template, a step-by-step form based on the USDA Harmonized GAP audit and a Sample GAP Plan, a written plan developed as an example of a GAP plan compliant with the USDA Harmonized GAP audit. Several template forms and logs to meet documentation requirements are also available on the website.

Food Safety web site. The resources used in the above trainings are available on the Penn State food safety web site http://extension.psu.edu/food-safety/farm. In addition to a template for the USDA Harmonized GAP audit and instructions to draft a plan using this template, other educational resources on GAPS as well as future trainings are posted. From October 2012 through September 2013, 1077 individuals viewed the sample GAP plan posted and 930 viewed the template. Based on five farm groups and member cooperatives in just Lancaster County, Extension educators estimate that 174 growers used the template. Google analytics data for this web site for October 1, 2012-September 30, 2013 indicate 30,901 page views and 1:22 minutes average time per page. A time greater than one minute suggests that the page was actually read. To access these resources, click on the attached Project Information Product for the food safety web site.

Some resources on the site are for sale including “The Food Safety Field Training Kit for Fresh Produce Handlers” (Guia de entrenamiento en seguridad de los alimentos para productores de vegetales frescos), a portable illustrated 19-page flip chart on personal hygiene and practices, practices that contribute to produce contamination. Used for on-farm training of harvesters and handlers, the kit is printed on 11”X 17” laminated cardstock in English/Spanish and English/Creole. To date, 2,650 have been distributed at Penn State on-farm food safety workshops or sold to Extension educators and government agencies in Florida, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Tennessee. For further information on the flip chart see the Project Information Product posting at the end of the report.

SharePoint. https://sharepoint.ag.psu.edu/coext/foodsafety/GAP is a website that can be accessed by those involved in on-farm food safety programming. The site is populated primarily with resources a trainer would use at a GAPs workshop such as PowerPoint presentations, handouts supporting the training, evaluation surveys, and workshop feedback. Handouts include how I get a GAP audit, using chlorine sanitizers in produce wash tanks, how to have your irrigation water tested for E. coli bacteria, and labeling and traceability on a produce farm.

Third-Party Certification (TPC). Growers who pass the USDA Harmonized GAP Audit are listed on the web site http://tinyurl.com/9qz6mos of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). In 2013, 89 Pennsylvania farms were listed. Through feedback on their evaluations, 24 workshop participants indicated that they had become TPC during the 2011 and 2012 growing seasons. To maintain GAP certification, audits must be carried out annually.

In addition to the USDA audit, Equicert, a private company, conducts third-party Harmonized GAP audits. In 2013, Equicert confirmed that they had audited 193 farms in Pennsylvania of which 182 were in Lancaster County. The vast majority of these growers are members of a cooperative that requires its members to become TPC. Equicert estimated 90% of these growers had taken the Penn State on-farm food safety training and used the Penn State food safety plan template. Equicert finds the Penn State on-line guidelines useful, making the involved documentation more organized and convenient for both the grower and auditor.

Public Policy. As part of the state’s appropriation to Penn State during the 2013 legislative session, a Penn State Food Safety Resource Center has been established; its initial appropriation is $100,000. Funding such a Center recognizes the importance of safe food to the public.

Supermarket research. To better understand the policies which supermarkets are requiring their suppliers of fresh produce follow, an e-survey was conducted with Pennsylvania supermarkets in 2009, see Tobin, Thomson, LaBorde & Bagdonis, 2011, http://www.joe.org/joe/2011october/rb7.php. A second on-line survey was carried out with 20 Pennsylvania supermarkets in 2013; 12 markets responded. A supermarket is defined as a chain with at least 11 markets nationally. For population selection for this study, all supermarket chains with at least one store in Pennsylvania were included. An article in a professional journal discussing this study is forthcoming.

 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.