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Commodity leaders, growers train in food-safety crisis communications

North Carolina commodity association leaders and growers are better prepared to communicate in the event of a fresh produce safety crisis, thanks to a training initiative sponsored by N.C. MarketReady and the Fresh Produce Safety Task Force.

Growers and commodity leaders practiced taking produce-safety related questions from the media.

The Fresh Produce Safety Task Force, which includes faculty from the Kannapolis-based N.C. MarketReady team, developed a train-the-trainer program on fresh produce safety two years ago. The goal of the program is to help growers minimize risks when it comes to providing a safe food supply. However, even when farmers may do everything possible to implement Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), a food-borne illness outbreak in another state can affect them and the entire industry. Through a crisis communications module, Extension agents and growers were introduced to the basics of dealing with a crisis.

The effort was so well-received that a number of commodity organizations in the state asked for their own program. So task force member Dr. Ben Chapman, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Extension food safety specialist, developed outbreak scenarios for seven commodity and industry groups, and a team of fellow N.C. State University faculty and task force members took the training directly to association meetings.

A total of 260 growers and association leaders went through the steps of an unfolding food-borne illness related to their commodity. Many squirmed and dodged make-believe reporters, who tried to put them on the spot with questions about the outbreak and their commodity crops. One growers’ group — United Fresh — has done the training twice.

“I think it has been really positive,” Chapman said. “It’s a really unique way to deliver extension information — getting participants involved in a game really.”

Participating in the scenarios also encouraged growers to consider GAPs training offered by N.C MarketReady, as well. Chapman recalled one grower who said the scenarios training — funded by an N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) specialty crops grant — made him realize how exposed he was without GAPs in place on his operation.

“The outbreak scenarios introduced growers to the many elements they need to consider in the event of a food-borne illness. They helped growers understand that while they need to be making important business decisions in a crisis, they may also have the news media and others demanding their time. It can become quite stressful, even with a crisis management plan,” said Leah Chester-Davis of N.C. MarketReady.

The next step, after the outbreak scenarios, was to help producers develop their own crisis management plans. Chester-Davis organized two days of training at N.C. State for 29 producers, commodity association leaders, Cooperative Extension agents and specialists, faculty members and Fresh Produce Safety Task Force members.

The intensive workshop on crisis preparedness training was designed to help producers and commodity leaders understand how to manage a food-borne illness crisis by developing key messages, anticipating hard questions and keeping news organizations informed.

“Our goal was to walk them through the steps of developing a crisis management plan,” Chester-Davis said.
In addition, a smaller group of association leaders and selected producers, representing a range of the state’s key commodities, participated in on-camera training sessions to prepare them for television interviews in the event of a fresh produce safety crisis. Trainees represented North Carolina’s strawberry, melon, tomato, sweet potato and apple industries.

“If there is a food-borne illness outbreak in this state related to fresh produce, news media often want to interview farmers,” Chester-Davis said. “Through this training, we wanted to prepare growers to work with news media, whether speaking about an outbreak on their farm or as a representative of their industry.”

“The training was very helpful,” said Doug Patterson of Rowan County’s Patterson Farm. “We were able to apply classroom tips to on-camera interviews. Our interviews were reviewed and feedback was given to help us become more comfortable in dealing with the media.”

The two-day training was funded by the NCDA&CS and a U.S. Department of Agriculture specialty crops grant for sweet potatoes. As a result of the USDA funding, N.C. MarketReady opened the training via live video to other universities across the country, including the University of California-Davis, Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University and the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

— Natalie Hampton

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