Over the past decade, Americans have fallen in love with locally grown produce, but just because something is grown nearby doesn’t automatically make it safe.
Small and beginning farmers, who put a lot of their energy into producing quality vegetables, might not have the education or experience to know how to keep their produce as safe as possible. That’s why University of Georgia Cooperative Extension is partnering with local food advocates and farmers across the state to offer produce safety training.
The training helps farmers ensure that they’re providing their customers the safest produce possible and helps them meet new food safety regulations without the added expense of consultants or private trainers.
“People just don’t think about some of the issues,” said Judy Harrison, professor and Extension food safety specialist in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “But we know there can be food safety issues with locally grown food just like there can be problems with food that is shipped here from other places if the food is handled improperly.”
Harrison has developed training materials for small farms and farmers market managers to enhance food safety at farmers markets. Harrison — along with UGA Extension personnel and educators with the Georgia Department of Agriculture, Georgia Organics, Georgia Fruit and Vegetables Growers Association and the National Farmers Coalition — have conducted Produce Safety Alliance Grower training across the state that meets requirements for growers under the Food Safety Modernization Act.
Some basic practices covered in the training include following National Organic Program guidelines for appropriate waiting periods between raw manure application and harvesting, water testing, proper composting of manure, keeping animals out of growing areas, using potable water to wash produce after harvest, and keeping produce cool after harvest.
Harrison and her partners hosted the training for groups of up to 50 farmers at community centers and UGA Cooperative Extension county offices across Georgia. At UGA, food scientists professor Mark Harrison and assistant professor Laurel Dunn have shared training responsibilities with Judy Harrison. Dunn will handle the program after Judy Harrison retires later this year.
Helping farmers comply
So far more than 900 farmers have gone through the low-cost training programs, allowing them to enhance the safety on their farms and to comply with FDA produce-safety regulations.
Produce-safety trainings have three goals: keep consumers safe and healthy; help Georgia’s farmers stay compliant with food safety regulations to market safe food; and help protect the health of Georgia’s burgeoning local-food industry.
“Food safety is just good marketing,” Judy Harrison said. “Even if your product is not involved in an outbreak, your sales still can be affected. … It only takes one scare to ruin the market.”
While consumers may associate food safety issues with dairy or meat products, fresh vegetables are often the culprit. Between 1998 and 2008, about 46% of foodborne illness in the United States was caused by fresh produce. The more people opt for fresh, un-processed produce, the greater the risk of illnesses if that produce is not handled correctly, Judy Harrison said.
To help curb these numbers, the U.S. Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which updated food-safety regulations across several industries, including production agriculture and, for the first time, created nationwide standards for growing, harvesting and handling produce. Under the law, farms may be required to have at least one manager on site who has undergone produce safety training certified by the Association of Food and Drug Officials. If farms are selling small amounts of fresh produce and other foods, and if they are selling it directly to consumers through farmers markets, they may be exempt from the rule. However, even these farms should have some food safety training to keep their customers safe.
Putting training into practice
Celia Barss, owner of Woodland Gardens, a small organic farm in Winterville, participated in one of the UGA trainings. “The information was really great,” said Barss. “The class made it feel less overwhelming. Sometimes the regulations you have to meet feel insurmountable, so we are now doing our best to implement what we can on our farm.”
A 12-acre USDA-certified organic farm, Woodland Gardens is just one type of operation that UGA Extension’s produce-safety training programs were designed to help. There are about 20,000 farms in Georgia that involve less than 50 acres, according to the 2017 USDA census of agriculture. Large-scale produce farming operations can also benefit.
“We have seen examples across the nation of foodborne illness outbreaks from produce causing not just illnesses, but deaths. And we’ve seen farmers lose their businesses. No one wants either of those outcomes to happen from Georgia produce. Our goal in UGA Extension is to help keep Georgia farms in business and help keep consumers safe,” said Judy Harrison.
The 2017 farm gate value in Georgia was $1.15 billion for vegetables and $704.8 million for fruits and nuts, according to the UGA Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.