Preparing small and mid-size growers of fruits and vegetables for on-farm food safety certification
Issue. A series of highly publicized multi-state outbreaks of foodborne diseases over the last five years have been traced to contaminated fresh produce. Follow-up investigations have consistently documented unsanitary field or packinghouse conditions. To assure a safer food supply, commercial buyers of fresh produce are increasingly demanding, as a condition of purchase, that suppliers develop a food safety plan documenting Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and that they submit to a fee-based independent, third-party farm inspection (TPC) as evidence of GAP compliance.
Approach. This project focuses on growers who sell produce to wholesale markets in Pennsylvania. Grocery store chains which buy from local growers are providing the contact information to target these suppliers. Educational resources and a food safety template, based on the USDA GAP audit program for produce growers, will focus on how to document GAP compliance through a written plan and steps necessary to attain TPC. Both training and technical assistance will be offered.
Leadership. Co-PIs Joan Thomson and Luke LaBorde collaborate to strengthen the economic viability of local food systems by developing educational resources and curricula based on audience assessments. Dr. LaBorde is the primary Pennsylvania contact for on-farm food safety.
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 GAP audit.
During winter 2011, eight workshops on Good Agricultural Practices
(GAPs) were held for growers and packers of fresh fruits and vegetables. These workshops focused on training growers to both implement and document GAPs. Before and after each workshop, an evaluation survey was administered to participants asking questions related to the participants’ GAP knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviors. In total, 176 evaluations were completed by participants. For almost two-thirds (65.4%) of these attendees, these workshops were the first they had attended on on-farm food safety. Overall, workshop participants documented positive changes in knowledge, skills, and attitudes.
Now following the 2011 growing season, a follow-up evaluation is being conducted to determine grower retention of knowledge, skills and attitudes, as well as growers’ follow-through in writing food safety plans, conducting self-audits and applying for TPC. This evaluation will identify topics on which growers seek further GAP information, their preferred delivery methods, and their preferred sources for GAP information. Thus far, two-thirds of the eligible respondents have replied.
Research completed through this project is being used to inform on-going Extension programming on on-farm food safety and to seek additional funding to support programming. In addition, this research is being published in professional journals as well as presented at professional meetings.
GAP educational materials, news articles for print and radio, the Penn State Farm Food Safety web site (http://extension.psu.edu/food-safety/farm), plus presentations at the annual meeting 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.
Through the PFMA (Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association), continuing communication takes place with supermarkets in Pennsylvania. Regular communication is also maintained with food safety personnel and auditors with the PDA (Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture).
GAP Extension programming has also been shared through national meetings including the Produce Safety Alliance training conference (http://producesafetyalliance.cornell.edu/2011%20PSA%20Proceedings.pdf) and professional associations of project personnel.
The food safety specialist serves on the United Fresh Produce Association’s GAPs Harmonization Calibration Committee. Harmonization is an effort to ensure that the criteria for GAP standards are compliant across available national and international audits through which TPC can be obtained.
Research carried out with supermarkets, consumers, and produce suppliers has informed and been applied to improve Extension’s on-farm food safety programming. A free-standing display Keep Fresh Produce Safe: Use Good Agricultural Practices (3 ft X 7 ft) plus magnets similarly titled and a Spanish/English laminated poster to reinforce worker hygiene practices supplement the educational resources shared in the 2010 annual report; all are available to support programming.
Growers marketing fresh fruits and vegetables directly to nine Pennsylvania supermarket chains were mailed brochures announcing the eight GAP workshops carried out by Penn State Extension during January through March 2011. In addition, workshop announcements and brochures were published through Extension and commodity association newsletters, press releases and local Extension offices. In all, 219 growers, industry representatives, educators and media representatives attended at least one of the eight sessions.
In collaboration with the Extension food safety specialist, local Extension educators delivered the program. The workshop agenda covered sources of on-farm produce contamination; an update on recent food safety legislation; GAP issues related to water usage, animals and manure, health and hygiene, and post harvest practices; a chlorine sanitizer demonstration; and protocols for traceability, mock recalls, and documenting GAPs using the Penn State GAP Food Safety Plan template. Most of these thematic areas were based on needs identified in previous surveys by other workshop participants.
The purpose of the program was for attendees to leave each session with the tools to document their on-farm food safety practices, draft a food safety plan for their operation, as well as prepare for a third-party audit. The program also emphasized how growers could access additional GAP resources on the Penn State Extension on-farm food safety web site (http://extension.psu.edu/food-safety/farm).
Certificates verifying participation in GAP training were issued to each workshop participant. Depending on the food safety policies implemented by the supermarkets to which they sell, the certificates provide some growers with the evidence they need to confirm their efforts of GAP compliance. The mix of participants is provided on the Beneficiary Form (Appendix A).
Before and after each workshop, an evaluation survey (Appendix B) was administered to participants asking questions related to the participants’ GAP knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviors. In total, 176 participants completed evaluations. Among attendees who provided valid data, just 11.1% (n=17) had already written a food safety plan while only 3.9% had either conducted a self-audit (n=6) or applied for a third-party audit (n=6). Although the majority of growers indicated that they would take initial steps to implement and document GAPs for the 2011 growing season, most were not yet ready to apply for a third-party audit. Writing a food safety plan (62.7%) is the action growers are most likely to take (Appendix C).
Among the 176 respondents, 136 participants provided responses to all 10 true/false statements both before and after the workshop. The overall mean for these 136 respondents before the workshop was 6.69 (out of a possible 10), which rose to 8.64 after the workshop. The mean for correct answers, therefore, positively increased by 1.95. The largest difference (41.5%) occurred for the statement on enclosing packing areas. Correct answers rose from 46.8% before the workshop to 88.3% after the workshop. The statement regarding manure-based compost was the only statement for which a decrease in correct answers occurred, declining by 3.8% from 69.4% beforehand to 65.6% afterward. Other questions on GAP practices related to testing irrigation water for microbes, transporting produce, hygiene practices, and audit standards.
Growers strongly agree that they are responsible for the safety of the produce on their farms, that preparing for a food safety audit will help them maintain their produce sales, and that consumers’ perceptions about the safety of their farms’ produce affects how much produce their farms sell.
Although growers’ overall knowledge and confidence in implementing and documenting GAPs increased, substantial variations occurred across workshop locations. For example in terms of preparing for a third-party audit, Chambersburg participants had the lowest confidence at only 50.0% in their ability to prepare for a third-party audit after the workshop, while participants in the North East workshop had the highest confidence at 94.1%. Across the eight workshops, 22.2% were either confident or very confident beforehand in their ability to prepare for a third-party audit; this percentage rose to 71.5% after the workshop. Such differences will be considered in terms of future programming.
Most growers grade and pack their produce in their own packing houses, indicating that future trainings should incorporate GAP procedures on post-harvest handling and hygiene in more depth. Based on total sales and location of customers, many of these growers will most likely be exempt from GAP certification mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011. Thus, their next steps related to GAPs will likely be determined by the food safety policies of the end users–supermarkets, restaurants, and consumers–to which they sell.
With the 2011 growing season over, a follow-up evaluation of workshop attendees, currently underway, will conclude at the end of 2011. Using both SurveyMonkey and snail mail, this evaluation will determine grower retention of knowledge, skills and attitudes and will also document the follow-through of growers on writing food safety plans, conducting self-audits and applying for TPC. In addition, growers are being asked to indicate their information needs, preferred delivery methods, and preferred sources of information on GAPs. Findings will inform Penn State Extension GAP programming for the 2012 growing season. For Pennsylvania growers to maintain wholesale market opportunities, growers will need to put forth substantial effort to comply with and verify their on-farm food safety practices, whether or not third-party certification is required. General training on potential on-farm food safety hazards and preventive measures will no longer be adequate.
At the 2011 Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Growers annual meeting, a half-day multi-state Good Agricultural Practices update on GAP extension and research activities (N=96) was held as was a separate 45 minute session on GAP standards in Spanish Principios de la seguridad alimentaria con buenas practicas agricolas (Food Safety Principles Using Good Agricultural Practices).
GAP educational materials are now being benchmarked by the Extension Food Safety Specialist against the recently released USDA Harmonized GAP audit. These updated materials will be posted on the Extension on-farm food safety website (http://extension.psu.edu/food-safety/farm). Google analytics data for this web site for October 1, 2010 – September 31, 2011 indicate 17,879 page views and 1:13 minutes average time per page; a time greater than one minute suggests that the page was actually read.
Project research reported in the Journal of Extension (http://www.joe.org/joe/2011october/rb7.php) indicates that supermarkets are continuing to implement policies that require their produce suppliers to provide evidence of compliance with on-farm food safety practices. While some supermarkets only require evidence of GAP training, others mandate a GAP audit, even specifying their preferred audit. Thus, produce suppliers who sell to more than one supermarket might have to provide different forms of evidence for their on-farm food safety practices. Besides this lack of uniformity regarding food safety policies among supermarkets, growers are concerned that meeting supermarket food safety policies will be overly demanding in both time and financial investments. Extension continues to communicate with supermarkets to understand their emerging food safety policies so that the needs of growers can be best served.
Another study, a master’s thesis (reported in http://aaaeonline.org/uploads/allconferences/10-4-2011_383_2011_NC_AAAE_Poster_Proceedings.pdf), investigated factors related to Pennsylvania consumers’ produce safety perceptions. In addition to demographic characteristics, this research investigated how consumer preferences for specific produce attributes—locally grown produce, organically grown produce, and produce that has been inspected to be in compliance with GAPs—affected their produce safety perceptions (Appendix D). This research indicates that consumers expect those in the commodity chain to change their behaviors to ensure that the threat of foodborne contamination is reduced. This finding is critical to communicate to produce growers and supermarkets so that they can understand and respond to consumers expectations regarding food safety. Understanding consumer perceptions of produce safety can encourage growers to invest in third-party certification (TPC) in order to verify GAP compliance. Research reported in publications and presentations is listed in Appendix E.
Specialty crops funding through the PDA continues to support two other projects: 1) Microbial Survey of Pennsylvania Surface Water Used for Specialty Crop Irrigation and Development of Sampling, Handling and Shipping Procedures for Surface Water Testing and 2) Expanding Cooperative Extension Farm Food Safety Training Opportunities for Pennsylvania Fresh Produce Growers. Another proposal to target the educational needs of Plain Sect, primarily Amish and Mennonite, growers of fruits and vegetables is now being prepared.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Pennsylvania offers a compelling case to investigate perceptions of produce safety among stakeholders. The state’s well-established local food system consists of at least 203 farmers markets across the state, ninth most in the nation. The state also has 420 certified organic farms, tenth in the nation. Pennsylvania is also one of six states most impacted by foodborne illnesses. Along with the racial, ethnic, geographic, and cultural diversity of the state, access to food varies across the state.
Although many Pennsylvania growers are likely to be exempt from the Food Safety Modernization Act, exemption does not necessarily mean that the produce is not contaminated or that GAPs should be less important, which is why Extension is committed to targeting all produce growers, exempt or not, in Pennsylvania. The winter 2011 workshops gave growers the knowledge and skills to adhere to GAP mandates. The follow-up evaluation currently underway will determine growers’ retention of knowledge, skills, and attitudes as well as document the follow-through of growers in writing food safety plans, conducting self audits, and applying for TPC. This information enables Extension to continue to adapt its GAP programming so that it addresses growers’ needs. Relevant programming will be carried out through Penn State Extension’s Food Safety Quality and Health program priority.
Knowing consumer perceptions of produce safety can also help fresh produce growers understand that other stakeholders in the food system have different food safety interests and concerns. Communicating consumer perceptions of produce safety to growers is especially important, for lack of interaction among different stakeholders in the food system often hampers efforts for improvement. Our research found that Pennsylvania consumers place high importance on the issue of produce safety. Further, they perceive that produce inspected for GAPs enhances safety. This information is being conveyed to growers so that they understand the value of implementing, documenting, and verifying GAPs. Extension is also considering increasing its role in educating consumers about produce safety. Educational programming for consumers might include the opportunities and barriers that more stringent on-farm food safety practices present to growers and supermarkets in order to make consumers more aware of the food safety perspectives of other stakeholders in the food system. Extension can also provide consumers with the most recent scientific evidence regarding known safety risks for the production and harvesting of produce.
Knowing that communication among produce growers, consumers, and supermarkets is not likely to occur on its own, Cooperative Extension is acting as a communications facilitator to assure perspectives from different groups of stakeholders are being heard by the others.
- Appendix A: Beneficiary Form
- Appendix D: Poster: Consumer Perceptions of Produce Safety: A Study of Pennsylvania
- Appendix C: Farm Food Safety Workshop Evaluation: All Workshop Locations, Winter 2011
- Appendix B: Workshop Assessment Form, Winter 2011
- Appendix E: Project Publications and Presentations
Penn State University
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