Modernizing Food Safety

A task force’s collaborative effort assists growers on compliance with regulations and standards to ensure produce safety.

It’s been called the biggest change to food safety and farming practices in modern history. And though it’s been more two and a half years since the Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law, there is still much work to be done.

The good news is that in North Carolina, organizations that support agriculture haven’t been sitting on their hands. Groups like N.C. State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, N.C. Farm Bureau and the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services have been active in helping to shape regulations and educate growers on how FSMA (pronounced fiz-mah) will affect the way they do business.

Representatives from all of these agencies and others make up the N.C. Fresh Produce Safety Task Force. For years, the task force has been following the development of FSMA and actively providing input from North Carolina growers. And even before the law was passed, task force members were educating growers on how to meet retail standards to ensure their produce was safe.

Debbie Hamrick, specialty crops director of the N.C. Farm Bureau Federation and a 1981 horticultural science graduate of CALS, has been active in helping North Carolina to understand and put its mark on the new rules. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has drafted proposed rules for FSMA and is accepting comments on the rules through Sept. 16.

“FSMA is the biggest shake-up of food safety in our life time,” Hamrick said. “The FDA will have jurisdiction over food safety on the farm. Before this, no one could tell you how to grow food on your farm.”

Hamrick adds that over the past 10 years, commercial produce buyers have required more of the growers whose produce they buy. Buyers want growers to follow Good Agricultural Practices – GAPs – that help increase produce safety. On top of that, buyers ask for third-party farm audits, inspections to ensure that growers follow their own produce safety plan.

Consumers also have wanted greater quality assurance following a number of high-profile cases of produce contamination. Such outbreaks include E. coli found in California spinach and Salmonella in peanut products and resulted in recent recalls involving cantaloupes.

The proposed FSMA rule on standards for growing, harvesting, packing and holding produce for human consumption was released in January, and since then three public hearings were held around the country, in Washington, D.C.; Portland, Ore.; and Chicago. North Carolina held its own listening session in February, organized by N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.

The state’s Congressional delegation has had a hand in FSMA, making sure that North Carolina’s interests are represented. Sen. Richard Burr was a sponsor of the legislation, and Sen. Kay Hagan sponsored the Tester-Hagan amendment that limits the size of farms covered by the legislation.

Dr. Chris Gunter (pictured), along with Dr. Benjamin Chapman amd Diane Ducharme, are among the Cooperative Extension professionals who serve on the N.C. Fresh Produce Safety Task Force.
Dr. Chris Gunter (pictured), along with Dr. Benjamin Chapman amd Diane Ducharme, are among the Cooperative Extension professionals who serve on the N.C. Fresh Produce Safety Task Force.

Dr. Ben Chapman, assistant professor in the 4-H Youth Development and Family and Consumer Sciences Department; Dr. Chris Gunter, associate professor in the Horticultural Science Department; and Diane Ducharme, Extension associate and coordinator for the Horticulture, Food Safety and GAPs Program, of CALS are among the N.C. State University faculty members on the N.C. Fresh Produce Safety Task Force who also have helped inform and guide the rules process for FSMA.

“They have provided excellent and much amazing information for regulators and staff,” Hamrick said.

“There’s a need here for regulation because there have been so many incidents of disease,” said Chapman, who writes for barfblog, a website that follows foodborne disease outbreaks.

“Five years ago, growers directed the task force to help increase farmers’ awareness of produce safety,” Gunter said.

“They recognized that it takes only one grower’s poor production to ruin an entire industry.”

Chapman and Gunter point out that the effort that drives the Fresh Produce Safety Task Force started before either of them or co-chair Ducharme arrived at N.C. State. Faculty members Dr. Donn Ward of food science and Dr. Doug Sanders of horticultural science created a training curriculum and conducted grower workshops.

The current task force was created when Dr. John Rushing and Dr. Trevor Phister of N.C. State’s Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences Department, along with Dr. Jonathan Schultheis of the Horticultural Science Department convened a group with broad interests to work on fresh produce safety. Stakeholders from across the state and federal regulatory agencies, grower associations and University of North Carolina institutions met to take the state to the next level by creating institutional knowledge and infrastructure within the area of produce safety.

From that original meeting, the N.C. Fresh Produce Safety Task Force was formed in 2007, with the goals of conducting training and research, organizing statewide meetings, influencing public policy and providing food safety outreach to small farms. The first order of business was the development of a new curriculum and the training of N.C. Cooperative Extension field extension staff, who helped train fruit and vegetable growers around the state.

Now, thousands of growers have received GAPs training, through first and second-level courses. The task force has conducted mock farm audits to show growers what to expect when their farms are audited. And farmers market managers have been trained on how to keep market produce safe for consumers.

FSMA sets standards for all aspects of produce production including agricultural water, soil amendments, human health and worker hygiene, facilities for handling and storing produce and the records that must be kept to verify all this information.

“This will require a very large, tectonic shift in thinking,” Hamrick said. “The fruits and vegetable industry will have a whole new language.”

Both Chapman and Gunter commend the work that Hamrick has done in raising awareness among the state’s growers and educating regulators about North Carolina agriculture.

“Debbie’s role has been key in inviting federal regulatory staff to North Carolina farms to see how production happens in this state,” Gunter said. “The FDA needs to understand farming in North Carolina or the East Coast in general and how it may be different than other production areas.”

“Debbie has been very active in this. She has pulled together all the players, encouraging industry to comment on the rules and getting regulators to look at the business side of the rules,” Chapman said.

When all the FSMA rules are finalized, it will still be years before the legislation is officially implemented that gives growers time to prepare. During that time, Chapman said, the task force will continue to be involved in education, helping to keep North Carolina agriculture competitive in a changing market by helping growers bring safe produce from fields to consumers’ tables.

—Natalie Hampton

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