Preparing small and mid-size growers of fruits and vegetables for on-farm food safety certification
Continuing outbreaks of food borne illnesses and recent Congressional action on the Food Safety Modernization Act are high profile news, commanding media coverage. At the same time, commercial buyers of fresh produce are increasingly demanding, as a condition of purchase, that their local suppliers practice and document Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) on their farms. This project addresses the challenges that growers perceive in these food safety policies. Among the ways in which GAP educational programming for small and mid-sized produce growers is supported is through GAP workshops and resource materials, a website, news articles, and a listserv.
In 2010, over 300 growers, many Amish and Mennonite, participated in training. Many more growers will be reached through the eight GAP workshops scheduled across the Commonwealth in early 2011. For Extension to reach growers, Pennsylvania-based supermarkets provide the names of local suppliers from whom they purchase local produce. An Extension farm food safety program team involving 12 Extension educators is supporting these locally offered workshops. Training certificates, verifying participation in GAP training, are issued to workshop participants.
Research involving those who grow and sell produce locally, as well as consumers and supermarket representatives, documents the need to provide technical assistance to fresh produce growers in order for them to document GAP standards and write a farm food safety plan. Growers express interest in implementing GAP practices on their farms but indicate little interest in applying for a GAP audit, perceiving financial and time constraints. Supermarkets could also take better advantage of the business opportunities that their food safety policies provide by communicating those policies to consumers, particularly those who value purchasing fresh, local produce.
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 GAP Audit.
Project personnel continue to update and revise GAP educational resources to support educational programming and make it more user-friendly. Training videos on an internal web site can be accessed by field-based Extension educators for self instruction.
Penn State Extension’s publicly available farm food safety web site, http://extension.psu.edu/food-safety/farm, provides farm food safety educational materials based on USDA audit standards. These resources, updated July 2010, supplement regionally-based GAP training that is now being offered to growers. Sections on the web site include:
What are Good Agricultural Practices?
How does my farm compare with national GAP standards?
How do I write a food safety plan?
The site also includes a template for writing a farm food safety plan with checklists and forms designed to make documentation of grower practices straightforward. Several of these educational materials can also be purchased, see Appendix A.
To date, more than 1600 Food Safety Field Training Kits for Fresh Produce Handlers have been sold nationally. Developed by Penn State’s Extension Food Scientist, this Spanish/English flip chart focuses on worker hygienic practices. In early 2011, this information will become available on laminated Spanish/English posters which can be used by growers and educators to reinforce training or farm-based workshops.
Project Advisory Committee:
At the 2010 Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Growers annual meeting, an informational session addressing GAPs, supermarket food safety expectations, and food safety public policy attracted approximately 150. A session for persons interested specifically in Pennsylvania opportunities to prepare for and obtain a GAP audit and research relevant to GAP implementation followed. Growers, produce packers, Extension educators, and representatives of supermarkets, government agencies, and the university attended. Similar sessions are scheduled for the 2011 Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetables Growers annual meeting. Following the 2010 conference, a listserv dedicated to GAPs was established to disseminate up-to-date GAP information with interested parties.
Extension farm food safety program team within the Horticulture Workgroup:
This program team was established in 2010 to plan, support and coordinate Extension programming regarding GAPs. The team’s objective is to teach the knowledge and skills needed to document farm food safety practices and, if required, pass TPC (third-party certification) audits in order for local produce growers to remain competitive in today’s markets.
GAP programming aligns with the College’s strategic initiative, Food, Diet and Health, which aims to support and maintain a safe food system that improves people’s quality of life. Increasingly aware of grower interest in GAPs, Extension established a farm food safety program team, which facilitates the dissemination of educational resources for both their own education as well as for producers. Among the team’s first efforts will be eight workshops on GAP standards and practices scheduled throughout the Commonwealth early in 2011, see Appendix B.
Luke LaBorde, food scientist and co-investigator on this project, contributes relevant GAP education program information in monthly Extension newsletters: The Fruit Times and The Small Fruit and Vegetable Gazette, to newsletters published by the Pennsylvania Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and the State Horticulture Association of Pennsylvania as well as to Lancaster Farming and FarmShine.
Mid-year 1 – Year 2
Following the 2009 statewide training, field-based Extension educators initiated in spring 2010 regional GAP workshops at three locations attended by over 150 producers of whom three-fourths were Amish. At two of the workshops, 102 training certificates were issued; the certificate verifies a grower’s participation in a GAP educational program.
These workshops focused on writing a food safety plan and preparing for an audit, priorities expressed in follow-up surveys of produce growers who had attended the 2009 statewide training. At two of the three 2010 workshops, participants completed post meeting evaluations. At both workshops, attendees indicated significant increases in knowledge regarding GAP standards and practices. Measuring knowledge for farm-to-fork food safety standards on a Likert scale ranging from 1 (Little Knowledge) to 5 (A Lot of Knowledge), the means for respondents at one of the workshops (n=24) increased from 2.75 before the workshop to 4.42 following the workshop. At the second workshop (n=48), the means on the same question improved from 2.77 before the workshop to 4.10 after the workshop. Another Likert scale, ranging from 1 (Not Confident) to 5 (Confident), assessed grower confidence in documenting their GAP practices. The means indicate that growers participating in both workshops increased their confidence in writing a food safety plan (n=24: 1.42 to 3.33; n=48: 1.8 to 3.36), conducting a self-inspection (n=24: 2.00 to 4.08; n=50: 2.12 to 3.70), and preparing for a farm audit (n=24: 1.42 to 3.63; n=50: 1.60 to 3.14). Yet overall most growers, as indicated by the means, remained neither not confident nor confident to do so following the workshops.
Although 50% (n=24) and 35% (n=48) indicated they were either likely or very likely to write a food safety plan within one year, only 4% and 13% respectively were likely or very likely to apply for a USDA audit within one year, while only 17% and 15% respectively were likely to apply for a private audit within one year. In fact, many indicated they were not likely to apply for either. This feedback suggests that technical support will need to be available for growers to follow through on the steps necessary to prepare for and pass an audit.
Not captured by the end-of-meeting evaluations, the old order Amish growers attending the workshops objected to the pictures of people used during workshop presentations by turning their heads to avoid looking at the photos. This concern will be addressed in future presentations.
Using Adobe Connect, the food scientist also conducted a train-the-trainer session on the current USDA audit standards for 12 Extension educators who have become involved in GAP training across the state.
Two surveys documenting grower attitudes, knowledge and action on food safety, GAPs and TPC (third-party certification) have been carried out. Through these assessments plus semi-structured interviews conducted with produce growers in Sao Paul, Brazil and Pennsylvania, growers clearly articulated their perceptions regarding the increasing emphasis on private food quality standards in their respective countries. The field-based interviews were funded in part through other grants. Should a food borne outbreak be traced back to their farms, Pennsylvania growers perceived greater consequences such as losing their farms than did Brazilian producers. Pennsylvania growers also believed that more responsibility for food safety should be placed on consumers. On the other hand, Brazilian growers perceived fewer consequences such as losing their contracts. The Brazilians also perceived that they, as growers, should take more responsibility for food safety, see Appendix C. Further analyses of these data are in process.
Growers’ Follow-up Survey:
This growers’ survey, carried out in November-December 2009, builds on the assessment conducted at the 2009 statewide training. Of the 282 surveys mailed, 156 were returned by growers for a 55% response. These data have provided a framework on which to structure the subsequent GAP training discussed above. In addition, the data documented the need to better understand the irrigation practices of those growing/marketing fresh produce given that no water quality standards currently exist for most water sources used in produce production irrigation. Extension, the results indicated, also needs to provide more interactive technical support to growers for them to understand, implement, and document GAP standards.
Regional workshops titled Keeping Fresh Produce Safe Using Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) will be offered at eight locations across the Commonwealth from January – March. At these workshops, growers will learn how to implement and document GAPs on their farms. To target growers who supply Pennsylvania supermarkets with fresh produce, nine supermarkets that currently require their local suppliers to provide evidence of GAP compliance ranging from self inspection to TPC have provided more than 350 names of growers from whom they purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. To market these workshops, brochures, see Appendix B, have been mailed directly to these growers. In addition, brochures are being distributed through the Philadelphia Common Market, the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative and a wholesaler for central Pennsylvania Amish.
The workshops will focus on:
1) potential food safety hazards associated with the production of fresh fruits and vegetables
2) water testing and treatment options
3) how to conduct a mock recall
4) how to prepare for a third-party inspection
5) how to document farm practices and write a GAP plan.
Updated educational resources being developed for these workshops will also be posted on the Farm Food Safety public access web site, http://extension.psu.edu/food-safety/farm, for both grower and educator use.
Given that USDA modified its audit standards, particularly in regard to traceability in late 2009, an updated farm food safety template designed to help growers more easily document their GAP practices was posted on the farm food safety web site, http://extension.psu.edu/food-safety/farm/how-do-i-write-a-food-safety-plan, in mid-2010.
Year 2 – Year 3
Educational programming and technical support in cooperation with Extension educators interested in GAP educational programming is being developed and improved through information obtained from growers, supermarket representatives, Extension educators, USDA/PDA auditors, and consumers. With the formation of an Extension farm food safety program team, an organizational structure now exists through which the Extension Food Safety specialist can support field-based Extension educators addressing GAP issues with producers. Research conducted through the project is being used in programming and is beginning to be disseminated through industry and professional outlets.
This e-survey of quality managers of Pennsylvania supermarkets documented that within the next three years, 2009 – 2012, Pennsylvania supermarket chains increasingly will require evidence that GAP standards are being implemented by local growers from whom the markets purchase fresh local produce. The 2011 workshops will focus on developing growers’ skills in order to implement and document GAP on-farm standards. Yet the research has indicated that few supermarkets communicate to consumers that the local produce they sell has been inspected for food safety, missing the business opportunities that their food safety policies can provide. In addition, those supermarkets that currently have more stringent GAP policies for their suppliers indicated that they are more likely to increase their local produce purchases by 2012. They also perceive that consumers purchase local produce because it is fresher, more beneficial to the local economy, and has better flavor; consumers purchase organic produce, they perceive, because it is more environmentally friendly, healthier, and safer to eat, see Appendix D.
Based on this research, supermarkets could benefit from food safety policies that include strengthening their market communications to consumers who prefer to purchase local and/or organic produce that has been certified for food safety.
Data are now being analyzed from a representative sample of over 600 Pennsylvania residents who participated in a telephone survey addressing common perceptions toward food safety and their impact on consumer purchasing decisions for fresh local and/or organic produce. Among the questions being analyzed is the common perception that consumers view local produce as fresher and safer. Disseminating the findings to growers and supermarkets will help them make more informed decisions regarding their food safety policies and practices.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
The immediate impact of this project-related research has been using the grower assessments to focus on their self-identified needs in the forthcoming field-based Extension programming targeted to small and mid-size fresh produce growers. Growers clearly expressed their interest in knowing how to document GAP practices such as a mock recall, how to prepare the food safety plan required to apply for TPC, and how to conduct self-inspections. Plus, the research findings have enabled the Extension food safety specialist to update the farm food safety web site with relevant information, enhancing its usability by the public. A second GAP website provides self-instructional resources for Extension educators who are now offering local GAP programming to produce growers. Greater grower participation in this training reflects the growers increased interest in GAP information.
In addition, the growers’ surveys have led to two other funded proposals:
1) Microbial Survey of Pennsylvania Surface Water Used for Specialty Crop Irrigation and Development of Sampling, Handling and Shipping Procedures for Surface Water Testing
2) Expanding Cooperative Extension Farm Food Safety Training Opportunities for Pennsylvania Fresh Produce Growers.
Both are supported by USDA specialty crops funds through the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA). Each addresses priorities identified through the grower surveys. Among growers responding to these surveys, of the 76% who irrigate their crops, 60% obtain water from surface sources such as rivers, streams or ponds. These growers expressed a need for scientific information on background levels of microorganisms in Pennsylvania waterways and how to appropriately assess risks through microbial testing.
Respondents who used surface water on their crops were then asked to participate in a microbial survey of their surface water sources. Over summer 2010, on-farm water testing was conducted at 33 farm sites to document microbial populations in surface waters used for irrigating Pennsylvania fresh produce crops. All sites were on farms growing produce for local retail or direct markets. At each site, water used to irrigate produce was tested three times; each test was taken on a different day over the growing season. Across these samples, up to 67% of the sites would not meet one of the established water quality standards currently used by auditors. The widespread occurrence of E. coli is of concern, for E. coli is an indicator of fecal contamination and thus may indicate the potential presence of human pathogens. Our tests have also indicated the presence of human pathogens in many samples. However, confirmatory tests are necessary for definitive conclusions. Given the high use of non-municipal sources to irrigate produce by Pennsylvania farmers, results from this research will be used to inform growers on practices they can implement to minimize the risk of crop contamination from surface water.
Grower participation at GAP workshops is increasing; in response Extension educators are now offering such programming locally. Although produce growers recognize the economic value of incorporating GAPs into their production practices, our research indicates that few are interested in seeking TPC unless it is mandated.
Appendix A: Farm Food Safety Materials Order Form
Appendix B: Brochure for Keeping Fresh Produce Safe Using Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs)2011 workshops
Appendix C: Knowing and Learning Good Agricultural Practices: A Comparison of U.S. and Brazilian Produce Growers poster
Appendix D: Food Safety Standards and Local Produce: Perspectives from Pennsylvania Supermarkets poster
- Appendix B: Brochure for Keeping Fresh Produce Safe Using Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs)
- Appendix C: Knowing and Learning Good Agricultural Practices: A Comparison of U.S. and Brazilian
- Appendix D: Food Safety Standards and Local Produce: Perspectives from Pennsylvania Supermarkets
- Appendix A: Farm Food Safety Materials Order Form
Penn State University
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Professor of Agricultural & Extension Education
Penn State University
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Penn State Extension
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Penn State University
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Associate Professor of Food Science
Penn State University
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