By Dominique Giroux, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, & Markets
Prevention versus reaction. For the produce industry, these words have become the backbone of a federal regulation that shifts the focus of our national food safety system from responding to foodborne illness to preventing it. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule (PSR) sets federal standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of produce to prevent microbial contamination and foodborne illness outbreaks. While at first glance the rule may seem intimidating, there are resources to help fruit and vegetable growers navigate this new regulation. Through partnership and collaboration across all sectors of the produce industry, the Vermont Produce Program is turning regulation into opportunity that will lead to business viability, sustainability, and efficiency. In this way the Produce Program helps achieve Vermont’s food system goals of increasing farm viability, technical assistance and business planning, and balanced regulation and enforcement that will allow producers to increase production and expand their market outlets.
Education Before—And During—Regulation
Enforcement is of course important when it comes to any federal standard, however states supporting the produce industry in the face of this new regulation know that education comes first and foremost. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (VAAFM) has partnered with FDA to implement the Produce Safety Rule – which means that VAAFM inspectors, not FDA, will be the primary enforcement on produce farms. In fact, Vermont is one of 45 states who have entered into cooperative agreements with FDA to implement the PSR and encourage the safe production of fresh fruits and vegetables across the industry. While preventing foodborne illness is the foundation of the rule, this goal cannot be achieved without adhering to the principal of education before, and during, regulation. Achieving compliance with the federal rule cannot be accomplished through strictly enforcement, which is why VAAFM’s Produce Program is committed to educating before—and during—regulatory compliance. Produce growers can take advantage of trainings, on-farm educational opportunities, and technical assistance to achieve compliance with the PSR.
Training, Education & Technical Assistance
“At the absolute core, it’s very straightforward and very simple,” acknowledges Tobin Porter-Brown, farmer and former produce safety manager at Pete’s Greens Farm in Craftsbury VT, after attending a Produce Safety Alliance (PSA) Grower Training. “The biggest take-away is that there’s a lot of recommendations from the training about looking at food safety in almost a common-sense way,” realizes Porter-Brown. And he’s right. Many produce growers already have adequate food safety procedures on their farm; whether it’s adequate employee hand-washing or cleaning and sanitizing surfaces and equipment. On the flip side – there are also complex requirements outlined in the rule which take additional education to understand and implement. This is where the PSA Grower Training course comes into play. This one-day course provides growers with a breakdown of PSR requirements and how to identify produce safety risks. While this training is only required for farms covered under the rule, the Produce Program is working with growers across the state to communicate the benefits of attending regardless of a farm’s coverage under the rule.
It can be intimidating, and frankly overwhelming, to prepare for regulatory compliance without having a good sense of what an on-farm inspection may entail. While the PSA Grower Training is a great first step for growers looking to improve produce safety practices, individualized on-farm assistance can provide further clarification of the PSR as it applies to each farm. The Produce Program Team at VAAFM along with Produce Safety Specialists from University of Vermont (UVM) Extension now offer educational On-Farm Readiness Reviews (OFRRs). OFRRs are free, non-regulatory assessments of a farm’s readiness for inspection under the FSMA PSR. During an OFRR, growers and reviewers have a one-on-one conversation and on-farm walk-around to evaluate pre-harvest, harvest, and post-harvest conditions and practices, assess areas where the farm is doing well, and identify areas for improvement in food safety practices. By taking the time to walk around the farm, growers and reviewers will identify areas for produce safety improvements that will likely lead to additional farm operation efficiencies.
Funding for Produce Safety Improvements
The impact of improved on-farm produce safety does more than ensure public health but may also result in other positive outcomes including increased profitability, enhanced production efficiencies, and improved worker satisfaction. The Produce Program developed a new grant program in the fall of 2017 to help Vermont produce growers improve on-farm produce safety. To date, the Vermont Produce Safety Improvement Grant Program (PSIG) has awarded 17 Vermont farms a total of $148,000 towards infrastructure improvements to prevent or reduce known produce safety risks on farm, and it’s clear additional funding is needed. The two-round grant program saw extremely high demand that demonstrated a need for produce farm improvements across the state. Successful projects have ranged from upgrades to easy-to-clean equipment and surfaces to retrofits of entire wash/pack areas with coolers, drains, storage, and enclosures. And while the purpose of this program is to support farms to identify and mitigate produce safety risks, grantees expect to see their projects benefit their farm business beyond the scope of produce safety. Richard Wiswall, owner of Cate Farm in Plainfield, VT and PSIG grant recipient admits, “It was the impetus for finally tackling issues that we wanted to address but kept putting off. Having the grant money made all three projects take shape, to the benefit of our farm, employees, and all our consumers.” Wiswall also claims that “Increasing our awareness of food safety issues has made us better farmers, and now we have the tools to do the job right.”
Wiswall is not the only grower who has expressed satisfaction with produce safety improvements. Although their project is not yet complete, Matt Systo, owner of Old Soul Farm in Barre, VT notes that they expect their project, which consists of upgrading their wash and equipment shed, will help “keep things clean and have things organized in a way that we are not worried about them getting dirty,” which ultimately, he notes, will improve efficiency. As the Produce Program, Vermont produce growers, and produce industry stakeholders continue to grow and learn together – it’s clear subsequent benefits from produce safety improvements will continue to surface.
Commitment to Produce Safety
Navigating the depth and complexity of the Produce Safety Rule can cause frustration and uncertainty for producers that are new to regulatory inspections and establishing produce safety standard operating procedures. However, through strong partnerships, collaboration, and embracing educational opportunities, Vermont’s produce community will successfully meet buyer requirements, maintain product quality, and produce safe food. The Vermont Produce Program will provide the resources, support, and assistance that our growers need to be successful and competitive in the marketplace.
So, what are the recommendations for those looking to improve produce safety on their farms? Well first, romaine calm! Attend a PSA Grower Training, request an On-Farm Readiness Review, and utilize the resources provided by the Vermont Produce Program, UVM Extension, and additional partners such as the Produce Safety Alliance and the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association. By taking advantage of the resources at hand, farmers will find themselves not only growing produce safety but also taking steps toward enhancing all-around viable businesses.
Cover Photo: Elmer Farm