Penn State Extension educators develop plan to educate plain sect on food safety

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Technology has changed the way we communicate and learn. Computers, video conferencing and online courses are just a few of the tools educators commonly use to impart knowledge. 

But what if you normally use technology to teach but can't? 

That was the challenge Penn State Extension food-safety educators like Jeff Stoltzfus, who is based in Lancaster County, faced earlier this year when asked to use today's technology to educate Amish and Mennonite farmer — some of whom reject modern ways — about new food-safety regulations.

And because those groups, collectively referred to as "plain sect," are responsible for about half of the state's produce, Stoltzfus said the need to educate them is a priority. 

"Delivery of farm food-safety training to this growing community of produce farmers will provide them with knowledge and skills needed to meet commercial and regulatory mandates and help them sustain their businesses," he said. "But even more important is helping them to ensure that the food they grow — and we eat — is safe."

Food Safety Modernization Act

The Food and Drug Administration's Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it. The act establishes regulatory practices that produce farmers, food processors and feed manufacturers must adopt to prevent contamination of fresh produce, as well as processed and manufactured human foods and animal feeds.

"Foodborne illnesses such as Salmonella and E. coli cause millions of Americans to get sick each year," said Luke LaBorde, associate professor of food science in the College of Agricultural Sciences. "Most cases are not serious, perhaps causing an upset stomach or vomiting. But, for the very young, elderly or those with impaired immune systems, these illnesses can be serious and life-threatening, and that's why it's so important to safeguard our food supply."

As LaBorde explained, a section of FSMA focuses on farm food safety and minimizing the risk of bacterial contamination of fresh produce through the use of "good agricultural practices" — often called GAPs — which cover hygiene, sanitary facilities, water use and testing, use of manure and compost on fields, and post-harvest sanitation. These practices are especially important for produce that often is consumed raw, such as leafy greens, broccoli, onions, cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes and celery, among others.

While farm food-safety standards are not new to the produce industry, what is new is that growers who sell some or all of their produce indirectly through food hubs, such as produce auctions, cooperatives and distributors, may fall under the law or otherwise be required by their buyers to meet FSMA criteria. And that requires training on regulatory standards for these growers.

FSMA training and plain sect 

Fortunately, Penn State Extension was at the table early when it came to FSMA education, forming a cross-discipline team of faculty, staff and statewide extension educators with expertise in the areas of feed and food safety. Together, the team conducts numerous training sessions across the state focusing on various topics of the law. Penn State Extension also offers an introductory video series about FSMA on its website. 

As for formal training, extension educators are required to strictly follow FDA-prescribed courses of study. For produce growers, this includes a 256-slide PowerPoint presentation. While most instructors wouldn't give a second thought about using this computer software program, extension educators knew that this method wouldn't be acceptable to some plain sect members — numbering in the thousands in Pennsylvania — as it requires the use of electricity.

"It's not as if we haven't tailored methods of teaching to meet cultural norms and learning styles before — we've provided hands-on education at farms, taught small groups using printed materials and flip charts," Stoltzfus said. "But trying to figure out how to best use the PowerPoint, especially because of the large number of slides, while making it affordable was a bit of a conundrum."

And with training slated to begin this fall, extension educators sought guidance on curriculum planning for appropriate format, readability, layout, design and mode of delivery from the Amish Food Safety Education Team, a group of plain sect leaders with members in five states. 

The first idea discussed involved enlarging the slides and placing them on a flip chart for group presentations. But there were drawbacks. To begin with, each of the slides would have to be visible to a group of 50 people — the standard class size. To create poster-sized charts would be costly, but the bigger issue was the problem of transporting a display of that size.

Back to the drawing board. Another suggestion entailed creating individual booklets for participants that featured all of the slides. But, again, there were disadvantages, the main one being cost. 

"The cost of an individual booklet and certification expenses would be about $150 for each participant, not including travel or meal expenses. That would be a hardship for many," Stoltzfus said.

While both ideas didn't stand on their own, each had merits. And that's when the group had a brainstorm — bring the best of both ideas together. The final plan? To create a personal binder/flipchart that could be propped up on the table in front of the participant. Each page would have two slides on it, which the participant would use to follow the presentation. The binders would be collected at the end of the training and used at the next. 

"We believe this is the best and most cost-efficient option, and our goal is to have these materials ready for teaching after this harvest season. We are appreciative of the guidance we received from the Amish Food Safety Education Team, as well as the Produce Safety Alliance, in helping us to come up with a suitable plan," Stoltzfus said. 

He added that Penn State Extension has obtained funds from U.S. Department of Agriculture to offset costs for developing, printing and disseminating the materials to farm food-safety educators throughout the country.

More information, including a list of ongoing food-safety and FSMA training sessions, is available by visiting the Penn State Extension website at http://extension.psu.edu/food/safety or by contacting any Penn State Extension county office. 

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Last Updated June 13, 2017