Farm food safety program targets fruit, vegetable producers

January 11, 2011

University Park, Pa. -- More and more consumers are turning to local farmers to fulfill a greater portion of their food needs. Pennsylvania's proximity to the northeastern population centers makes it the ideal supplier to these "locavores." Yet these locavores also increasingly demand assurances that their produce is safe to eat.

At the same time, the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed by President Barack Obama Jan. 5, will establish minimum standards for the safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables based on known safety risks. Recent consumer trends suggest a preference for raw or minimally processed fruits and vegetables to canned and heat-treated versions that ensure that microorganisms have been killed, so fruit and vegetable growers must be especially careful to ensure their produce is safe.

So this winter, extension educators in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences are offering safe-produce workshops for Pennsylvania's fruit and vegetable growers. The one-day workshop "Keeping Fresh Produce Safe Using Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs)" focuses on on-farm food-safety practices. It promises to deliver science-based, practical guidelines and materials for evaluating and documenting farm food-safety practices.

This program will be held at eight locations throughout Pennsylvania between January and March. The registration fee of $30 will cover the cost of presentations, materials and lunch.

Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) are voluntary guidelines established by the FDA and the USDA in 1998. They were created with the intent of identifying potentially hazardous situations and taking preventive steps to avoid product contamination altogether, rather than having producers react to problems that occur, which could prove financially disastrous to a farm.

After the Food Safety Modernization Act passed, farmers with gross sales over $500,000 or those who sell produce to distributors or produce auctions for resale will be required to show evidence of adhering to GAPs. "Many wholesale buyers already are requiring their grower-suppliers to receive training, conduct a self-audit and/or submit to third-party inspection," explained Luke LaBorde, associate professor of food science at Penn State.

Earlier workshops addressed the basics of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs). This year, the workshop will review those basics but will include new topics requested by growers.

"Participants expressed a need for more information on how to write a food- safety plan, so we'll be using the GAP plan template and forms developed at Penn State to guide them through this," said LaBorde.

"This will review what growers learned last year but build upon that knowledge. We encourage all growers, including those who attended the previous workshops, to attend," he said.

Participants will learn about potential food-safety hazards associated with producing fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as various water testing and treatment options. They'll also learn how to conduct a mock recall, prepare for a third-party inspection, document farm practices and write a GAP plan.

"More and more, GAP compliance is becoming a requirement for wholesale produce marketing. Producers who don't understand and implement GAPs and their documentation may be shut out of markets," said LaBorde.

In the wake of the Food Safety Modernization Act, confusion and misconceptions have spread, he explained. Farmers with total sales of less than $500,000 are exempt from requirements as long as half of sales are directly to "qualified end users," such as in-state consumers, restaurants, or grocery stores or to out-of-state locations if they are less than 275 miles from the farm.

"Of course, many restaurants and retail food establishments such as grocery stores have been moving toward their own GAP requirements, so even these smaller growers likely will be subject to those mandates," LaBorde said.

For workshop registration information, go to Penn State's food-safety website or call 877-489-1398. More information on farm food safety is also available on this site.

  • IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 21, 2011