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 and/or practices. 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. In addition, federal regulations through the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) are currently being drafted. These regulations should clarify which growers of fresh produce must adhere to GAPs.
Approach. This project focuses on growers who sell produce to wholesale markets in Pennsylvania. Grocery store chains which buy from local growers initially provided the contact information to target these suppliers in previous years of programming. During 2012, growers who market their produce through auctions and member cooperatives were a primary audience since these types of wholesale markets are also increasingly requiring evidence of GAP compliance. In addition to what prior participants in Extension’s GAPs workshops have told us, the educational needs of these growers were identified through the managers of the auctions and cooperatives or through their boards of directors. Educational resources and a food safety template, based on the USDA Harmonized GAP audit program for produce growers, focus on how to document GAP compliance through a written plan and steps necessary to attain TPC. Both training and technical assistance are offered.
Leadership. Co-PIs Rama Radhakrishna, 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 2012, 15 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, using the United Fresh Produce Association Harmonized GAP Standards and the USDA Harmonized GAP audit as the basis for our recommendations and development of curricular materials. At ten of these workshops, before and after evaluation surveys were administered to participants asking questions related to the participants’ knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors. In total, 263 evaluations were completed by participants. For three-fourths (74.6%) of the participants, these GAP workshops were the first they had attended on on-farm food safety, which followed a trend observed among GAP workshop attendees in prior years. Overall, evaluations have indicated positive changes in knowledge, skills, and attitudes.
Following the 2011 growing season, a follow-up evaluation was conducted with growers who had participated in GAP workshops to determine their retention of knowledge, skills, and attitudes, as well as their follow-through in writing food safety plans, conducting self-audits, and applying for third-party certification (TPC). This evaluation also identified topics on which growers are seeking further GAP information, their preferred delivery methods, and the sources for GAP information which they most frequently use. The response rate for this follow-up was exceptionally high – 67.1%.
This study and other research completed through this project are being used to inform on-going Extension programming on on-farm food safety and to seek additional funding to support GAP programming. The findings are also being utilized to assess and improve the effectiveness of educational resources and alternative delivery strategies to reach the diverse population of growers. In order to provide relevant and appropriate GAP programming specifically for Amish and Mennonite growers, a proposal titled Development, Delivery, and Evaluation of GAP Teaching Methods and Materials for Amish and Mennonite Wholesale Growers of Fresh Produce has been submitted to USDA AFRI for funding. The purpose of this proposal is to develop and assess the effectiveness of an on-farm food safety training curriculum specifically designed for Amish and Mennonite growers whose growing practices and cultural values differ significantly from growers using modern equipment. In addition, project-related research is being published in professional journals as well as presented at professional meetings.
GAP educational resources including checklists, how-to templates, and background material are easily accessible through the updated, open-access Penn State Farm Food Safety website (http://extension.psu.edu/food-safety/farm) available to any stakeholders in the food system interested in the safety of the food supply. All of these resources have been benchmarked against the USDA Harmonized GAP audit. 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. In total, 32 Produce Food Safety Awareness sessions, ranging from 60 – 90 minutes and involving 1,243 participants, primarily growers, were conducted in multiple locations across the state during 2012. 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 target growers such as those who are Amish and Mennonite, field-based educators engaged managers of auctions and member cooperatives through which these growers regularly market their produce. GAP Extension programming is also being shared through national meetings including the Produce Safety Alliance training conference and 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 for 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. 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 to the educational resources described in prior annual reports, this year we have adapted our recommendations for documentation and templates for food safety plans so they are consistent with Harmonized GAP standards. We specifically revised our pre- and post-harvest checklists to include new requirements in the Harmonized GAP audit.
In order to ensure relevant programming for produce growers selling their produce through cooperatives and/or produce auctions, local educators in collaboration with the managers and boards of directors of auctions and member cooperatives identified the specific GAP standards on which the training should focus. In addition to mandating that growers marketing their produce through their auction and/or cooperative participate in the 2012 training workshops, these managers also made the local arrangements to carry out the workshops held from January through April 2012. In all, 15 certificate training workshops titled Keeping Fresh Produce Safe Using Good Agricultural Practices covered technical information on GAP standards which growers need to know in order to properly implement and document GAPs. The educators estimated that close to 60% of the participants were plain sect – either Amish or Mennonite growers. In addition to targeting growers who market their produce through auctions and cooperatives, other GAP workshops targeted those who sell their produce to supermarkets such as Giant Eagle and Wegmans. Overall, 582 individuals participated in these five-hour workshops. Field-based educators supported by the Extension food safety specialist conducted the workshops.
The workshop agenda covered sources of potential on-farm produce contamination. The specific GAP issues addressed related to 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 purpose of the program was to provide attendees with the necessary tools to document their on-farm food safety practices, draft a food safety plan for their operation, and/or prepare for a third-party audit. Certificates verifying participation in GAP training were issued to each workshop participant who requested one; 501 participants did. The certificate confirmed that the grower had participated in a five-hour GAP workshop addressing on-farm food safety standards conducted by Penn State Extension. For some growers, these certificates provided the evidence required to meet their buyers’ food safety policies. A profile of participants is provided on the Beneficiary Form (Appendix A).
The evaluation survey (Appendix B) completed before and after each workshop by participants asked questions related to the participants GAP knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors. In total, 263 of 330 participants completed evaluations for an overall response rate of 79.7%. For (what was then) the upcoming 2012 growing season, just over half (51.8%) of the respondents projected that they would write or update a food safety plan and close to two-thirds (63.5%) indicated that they would conduct their own food safety inspection or mock audit. However, just 20.2% projected that they would apply to have a third-party audit on their farm. These findings suggest that most growers would take initial steps to implement and documents GAPs, but few were ready or required to apply for a third-party audit.
Among the 263 respondents, 168 participants provided responses to all 10 true/false statements both before and after the workshop. The overall mean for these 168 respondents before the workshops was 6.60 (out of a possible 10) which rose to 8.11 after the workshops, a positive increase in mean scores of 1.51 points. For seven of the ten true/false statements, an increase in correct answers occurred (Appendix C), indicating the effectiveness of the workshops in educating participants on the content related to these thematic areas, including packing standards, hygiene, and irrigation water safety. However, decreases in corrects answers from before to after the workshops on three questions were documented. These questions related to the safe application of manure-based compost, FSMA regulations, and procedures to limit contamination from wild animals. This information indicates that future workshops need to focus on and better clarify the requirements of GAPs related to these areas.
Evaluation findings also revealed that growers understand the importance of safe on-farm food safety practices. After the workshops, growers strongly agreed (94.9%) that they are responsible for the safety of the produce on their farms, that preparing for a food safety audit would help them maintain their produce sales (74.4%), and that consumers’ perceptions about the safety of their farms’ produce affects how much produce their farms sell (85.6%).
The evaluation survey also asked respondents to indicate their confidence in three specific skills (writing a food safety plan, conducting a self-audit, and preparing for a third-party audit) that are important in the process of GAP implementation. Of the 263 survey respondents, 192 (73.0%) responded both before and after the workshops to the items measuring participants confidence in their GAP skills. After the workshops, 124 (64.6%) reported that they were either confident or very confident in writing a food safety plan, an increase of 44.8% from before the workshops. Of the 192 respondents, 69 (35.9%) were either confident or very confident in conducting a food safety inspection before the workshops, which increased by 36.0% to 138 (71.9%) after the workshops. After the workshops, 101 (52.6%) were either confident or very confident in preparing for a third-party audit, an increase of 34.3% from 35 (18.3%) before the workshops.
When asked to describe their farm operation, 151 respondents (71.9%) reported that they grade and pack their produce in their own packing houses, while 76 (36.4%) pack their harvested produce in the field for immediate delivery. The majority (70.7%) do not sell 50% or more of their produce directly to supermarkets, restaurants, and/or consumers. These growers will not be exempt from FSMA regulations. Because exemption criteria are multi-pronged, probably few growers will qualify for exemption. Therefore, technical training on GAP standards will continue to be critical. Even those growers who are exempt will still need to adhere to the policies of the outlets to which they sell.
Updates on GAPs are offered annually at the multi-state Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Growers conference. Templates for the USDA Harmonized GAP audit have been posted on the Extension on-farm food safety website (http://extension.psu.edu/food-safety/farm). Google analytics data for this website for October 1, 2011 – September 30, 2012 indicate 26,003 page views with an average viewing time per page of 1:16 minutes; a time greater than one minute suggests that the page was actually read. Use of the website continues to increase.
Following the in-depth training workshops, educators also provided writing support to draft food safety plans at the request of growers (N=57). Averaging four to five growers across 13 sessions, one-on-one assistance based on the growers’ on-farm practices could be discussed. Later in the growing season, on-farm mock audits involving 68 growers were conducted at three farms in Berks and Lancaster counties. These walk-through sessions were designed to help growers assess food safety risks on their farms and become acquainted with the process of a TPC audit.
Six months following the 2011 growing season, a follow-up evaluation was conducted with those who participated in the 2011 GAP workshops. This study, referenced in the 2011 annual report, assessed growers’ retention of knowledge, skills, and attitudes as well as documented follow-through of growers’ on-farm food safety behaviors: writing food safety plans, conducting self audits and applying for TPC. Given the continuously evolving on-farm food safety standards and regulations, this follow-up evaluation research was based on the premise that feedback from growers is essential to assure that programs maintain their relevance. In order to improve programs, the purpose of the evaluation was to document the ways in which GAP knowledge, skills, and attitudes influence a grower’s on-farm food safety decisions (the grower’s behavior). These findings are based on actions growers reported taking during the 2011 growing season. Although growers retained GAP knowledge, positive attitudes, and confidence in their skills six months following the workshops, each was at a diminished level from the responses that were provided immediately following the workshops.
The follow-up evaluations also provided useful information regarding the GAP behaviors of the growers. At the conclusion of the workshops, few growers (n=15) indicated that they would write a food safety plan, yet more than twice as many (n=39) reported doing so. On the other hand, 112 indicated at the conclusion of the workshops that they would complete a self-audit, yet just 48 did so. Similarly, although 39 growers indicated that they would likely apply for TPC, only 21 had done so. Farm size was found to have no relationship to any of these food safety behaviors. The independent variables (knowledge, attitudes, and confidence in skills) showed low to moderate positive relationships to each of the three food safety behaviors. Growers reported that the primary reason they did not carry out any of these GAP behaviors is that they are not required to do so. External expectations of those to whom the growers sell their produce currently are driving growers’ behaviors. A minority of growers indicated that they implemented GAPs because they were motivated to contribute to a safe food supply. Time, money, and the technical complexity of requirements are viewed as barriers to implementation.
Through the research conducted to assess the impact of the GAP training, methodological issues to ensure credible findings were addressed as well. Specifically, the use of mixed-mode methods to reduce costs yet enhance the response rate among the defined population was explored (http://www.joe.org/joe/2012december/tt8.php). To assess the rigor of the evaluation, a checklist was developed to ensure that data quality was maintained, providing credible information on which to base decisions (http://www.joe.org/joe/2012june/tt1.php).
USDA Specialty Crops Block grants through the PDA support related projects, including 1) Expanding GAP training and educational opportunities for Pennsylvania fresh produce growers, 2) Pre-harvest microbial interventions to prevent contamination of Pennsylvania specialty crops, and 3) Good Agricultural Practices training and support for Pennsylvania fresh produce growers.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Produce growers participating in the Penn State Extension GAP workshops carried out through this project primarily sell their produce in Pennsylvania, sell less than $500,000 annually, and grade and pack produce at their own packing houses or in the field for immediate delivery. Growers attending the 2012 GAP workshops who responded to the evaluation survey indicated that Penn State Extension is their most preferred source for information on GAPs (76.2%) followed by growers associations (50.0%) and other growers (48.0%).
Thus, Extension, not only in Pennsylvania but nationally, should acknowledge its importance as a primary source of information on GAPs. Extension can fill the vital role of facilitating communication among the various stakeholders in the food system, including growers, supermarkets, other marketing outlets, and consumers who have a vested interest in safe growing practices. As the population most directly experiencing the impacts of on-farm food safety policies, growers’ needs should be emphasized in Extension programming.
Research findings from Penn State Extension’s programming indicate that growers participating in workshops are gaining a better understanding of GAPs. Yet this understanding is not necessarily leading to behavior change. Change is primarily occurring among growers when they are required by those buying their produce to provide evidence of their on-farm food safety practices. To date, the activities that growers are most commonly pursuing are participating in GAP training or writing a food safety plan. Given that only a marginal number of growers are applying for an audit, the evidence indicates that only a few buyers are currently mandating TPC. Or perhaps change is more incremental: for example, feedback from educators reported that Amish and Mennonite growers selling produce through auctions or member cooperatives are now using new boxes on which the specific field lot from which the produce was harvested is indicated in order to facilitate traceability. Within the totality of GAP standards, this change may not appear to have much significance, but managers of auctions and member cooperatives view these changes in packing and labeling practices as highly desirable food safety behaviors.
Successes – even seemingly small ones – must not be overlooked. As comprehensive and recent as GAP standards are, time is needed to address the wide range of needs of fresh produce growers. Extension’s programming must be sensitive to the different needs that diverse growers have. In Pennsylvania, for example, the presence of organic and conventional produce growers, as well as Amish and Mennonite growers, means that programming must be adapted to assure its relevance to each subpopulation. Given the diversity in farming practices across growers and the variety of produce they grow, as well as the assortment of GAP policies among buyers, training sessions and the educational resources supporting this programming must be developed for use in an evolving policy arena.
In this dynamic environment, Extension must carefully target growers, for growers’ needs will vary based on whether they must fulfill FSMA requirements, private policies, both, or neither. Not only should Extension implement rigorous needs assessments, but Extension should also continue to establish partnerships with private retailers that require evidence of GAP compliance in order to adapt programming to the policies specific to that buyer. The focus of Extension’s educational programming must be tailored to the needs of growers in order for them to maintain their access to markets and thus, maintain their economic viability. No single educational strategy can accomplish this objective. Extension must address this challenge as it also facilitates communication among the stakeholders involved. Ongoing evaluations are essential in order to improve programs and adjust to the ever-changing policies of private marketing outlets and public regulations. Simultaneously, the perceptions and experiences of growers need to continue to be documented so that market managers and policymakers can better understand the impacts of more stringent on-farm food safety requirements on fresh produce growers.
- Appendix C: 2012 Pre – Post On-Farm Food Safety Workshop Evaluation Report
- Appendix B: 2012 On-Farm Food Safety Workshop Evaluation Form
- Appendix A: Beneficiary Form
- Appendix D: 2012 Project Publications and Presentations
Penn State University
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