Penn State Extension plays critical role in educating food suppliers

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- In the last few years, as the federal government has tightened safety regulations across the food supply chain to prevent foodborne illness, the role Penn State Extension plays in educating growers and processors to comply with new prevention-based controls has become critical.

In 2013 and 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released initial and updated draft Produce Safety Rules as required under the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011. These rules established mandatory practices that farmers must adopt to prevent microbial contamination of fresh produce.

This represented a new approach toward preventing foodborne illnesses, according to Luke LaBorde, associate professor of food science in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. "Instead of relying only on periodic visits from a state or federal inspector, food businesses are charged to take a preventative, instead of a reactive, approach," he said.

"Growers and processors are responsible for understanding potential risks in their operations and developing science-based measures to control those risks before a problem actually occurs."

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year about 48 million people -- one in six Americans -- get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases. News stories reporting outbreaks of foodborne illness in the United States are all too frequent.

And those problems are frequent. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year about 48 million people -- one in six Americans -- get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases. News stories reporting outbreaks of foodborne illness in the United States are all too frequent.

A recent widespread outbreak of Cyclospora infections sickened more than 500 people across 17 states. In that case, the contamination was traced to bagged salad served by two well-known restaurant chains. The good news is that food-safety experts believe these illnesses are largely preventable.

vegetables

The new federal food safety rules cover only fresh produce that is sold commercially. The focus is on fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, mushrooms and sprouts that typically are eaten raw, not commodities that generally are cooked or further processed. For example, potatoes, eggplant, winter squash, beets and beans for drying are exempt.

Image: Natalie Maynor/Flicker

Not long ago, a recall of sliced apples contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes was traced to Pennsylvania-grown apples. And recently, an outbreak of listeriosis killed seven people who ate contaminated caramel apples. The DNA fingerprint of the pathogen obtained from patients was identical to that found in the California packing house of the apple supplier.

To comply with these new food-safety regulations, the food industry needs education and training, LaBorde noted. "A highly trained workforce is the best defense against food-safety and sanitation lapses and the health and economic consequences that might result."

Penn State Extension is responding to these training needs, and it is the ideal vehicle for reaching producers across the state: Extension has active and successful food-safety programs  in place that have trained thousands of produce growers, food processors and food-service workers.

For example, Penn State has been a leader in developing research-based food-safety standards for the mushroom industry, known as mushroom good agricultural practices or MGAPs. "Today, about 90 percent of the fresh mushrooms consumed in the United States have been grown on a farm that passed an MGAP third-party inspection," LaBorde said. "As a result of MGAPs, mushroom growers are more prepared than other produce groups to comply with the FDA produce-safety regulation."

As well as food-safety educational programs long in place, Penn State is collaborating with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to on a new Food Safety Resource Center that is helping producers comply with new regulations.

With budget constraints posing a potential obstacle to developing new programs, this center leverages expertise from both organizations to identify emerging food-safety issues and develop strategies to address them before they reach crisis levels; enhance coordination in responding to foodborne disease outbreaks and product recalls; guide food-safety policy issues to account for the unique characteristics of the state's food system; and help the food industry apply food-safety regulations and best practices.

"We want this center to be a catalyst for research-based information and to increase communication among Penn State, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and the food industry," said LaBorde. "What can we do best and what can they do best? Our priority is to convey a uniform, consistent message to food growers and processors."

In the longer term, LaBorde envisions that the Food Safety Resource Center will conduct hands-on, practical research that food producers can use to ensure the safety of their products. "Growers need both verification and validation," he explained. "Verification means you're doing what you said you were going to do in your food-safety plan, and validation is showing that it works: If I process this food product at 170 degrees for 10 minutes, I know it will kill the bacteria."

The regulation is far reaching and addresses issues such as worker health and hygiene, the quality of agricultural water, biological soil amendments, the use of domesticated animals, potential contamination by wild animals, and sanitation standards for equipment, tools, and buildings.

LaBorde stressed some important points about the rule: First, it covers only fresh produce that is sold commercially. It doesn't apply to produce used for personal consumption, such as home gardens. Second, the focus is on fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, mushrooms and sprouts that typically are eaten raw, not commodities that generally are cooked or further processed. For example, potatoes, eggplant, winter squash, beets and beans for drying are exempt.

And not all farms that grow fresh produce have to comply with the rule, LaBorde noted. While farms with gross produce sales over $500,000 are generally required to comply, farms with gross produce sales under $25,000 are exempt. Even among those farms with total food sales of between $25,000 and $500,000, some may receive exemptions, depending on the marketing channels they use.

For more information about the regulation and information on good agricultural practices training opportunities, visit the Penn State Extension Farm Food Safety website or contact LaBorde at 814-863-2298 or by email at lfl5@psu.edu.

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Last Updated February 24, 2015