Clean Hands, Safer Produce
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Teaching Good Agricultural Practices to produce handlers will help ensure that these sweet-potatoes aren't contaminated. (Photo by Communication Services)












































Agents have conducted food safety training in Spanish to bring Good Agricultural Practices to the many Hispanic workers who handle produce. (Photo by Communication Services)
















Clean Hands, Safer Produce: Food science and horticultural science specialists create a training program to keep produce safe from microbial contamination. --- By Natalie Hampton

The food safety training program aims to prevent contamination of fruits and vegetables from field to grocery store. (Photo by Communication Services)

ornate letter Americans in general can rely on a safe, bountiful food supply. But when the food safety system fails, we seek greater assurances that everything possible is done to keep our food supply safe from microbial contamination.

To ensure the safety of fresh produce, food science and horticultural science faculty at North Carolina State University have developed a comprehensive training program that has been implemented in 12 Southeastern states. And interest is likely to increase under a new federal certification program for fresh produce.

The fresh produce food safety program is part of a larger endeavor, the N.C. Alliance for Food Safety. The alliance includes faculty from N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Veterinary Medicine, as well as the colleges of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, and Humanities and Social Sciences. The alliance provides an interdisciplinary approach to teaching, research and extension efforts aimed at improving food safety from the farm to the table.

The produce safety training program is based on GAPs, or Good Agricultural Practices. Growers who train their workers in GAPs are implementing practices that can prevent contamination of produce.

Dr. Doug Sanders, horticulture Extension specialist, and Dr. Donn Ward, food science Extension specialist, started the program with a grant from the U.S. Department
of Agriculture
. The job of developing the training fell to Dr. Dennis Osborne, horticultural Extension associate.

With the help of 42 cooperators, food scientists and horticultural scientists in 11 states, Osborne created the Southern Regional Fresh Produce Food Safety Program. This extensive training program has attracted the attention of the grocery store industry. In February, the American Society of Horticultural Science, South Region, presented Osborne, Sanders and Ward the Blue Ribbon Award for Extension Publications for nine crop-specific bulletins on GAPs for Southern fresh fruits and vegetables.

The program is designed to reduce the risk of microbial contamination in fresh produce by getting growers to voluntarily implement GAPs. Osborne wants the term GAPs to become as common in produce marketing as HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) is to food processing.

“If you use GAPs properly, you can reduce the likelihood of a food safety problem,” Osborne said.

GAPs originated with a highly technical 1998 Food and Drug Administration document. The Southern Regional program boils GAPs down to eight simple statements — GAPs Simplified”— that emphasize specific rules and procedures to prevent contamination. These include washing hands and using clean water on produce.

The first piece of the Southern Regional training package was a “train-the-trainer” manual designed to teach the basic concepts of food safety. Each chapter in the manual was written by one of the 42 cooperators. The training manual comes with a CD that includes PowerPoint presentations on each topic. A training video that explains GAPs is also in the works.

The training program is available to county Extension centers, so agents can offer training to produce handlers. “If you didn’t know anything about food safety, you could open the manual, use the CD and teach this food safety program,” Osborne said.

In addition to the training manual and CD for county centers, each state organized a team of Extension professionals to serve as trainers for their states, a total of 150 agents in 12 Southern states. These front-line trainers learned how to teach GAPs to produce handlers, many of whom speak Spanish.

“A large number of food handlers now are migrant labor or people new to this country,” Osborne said. “They have the most intimate and most frequent contact with fresh fruits and vegetables grown in this country, but the least training in food handling.”

North Carolina Cooperative Extension professionals involved in the program are Darrell Blackwelder, Rowan County; Diane Ducharme, Buncombe; Bill Hanlin, Wilkes; Bill Jester, Cunningham Research Station, Kinston; Billy Little, Wilson; Milton Parker, Columbus; Allan Thornton, Sampson; Wick Wickliffe, Guilford; and Taylor Williams, Richmond.

Across the Southeast, the front line agents have trained both Hispanic workers and non-Latino, limited-resource produce growers and workers in GAPs, right on the farms where they work.

Last summer, Blackwelder organized training for about 175 workers at four Rowan County produce operations — Patterson Farms Inc. of China Grove and Whetmore, Correll and Moore farms in Woodleaf. Dr. Luz Reyes, a post-doctoral specialist in horticultural science, conducted some of the trainings in Spanish, and a Spanish-speaking woman from Salisbury also participated.

One of the most graphic elements of the training, Blackwelder said, is the use of fluorescent dyes to illustrate how microbes can be present on hands, even after washing. Workers rub the dyes on their hands, then wash their hands thoroughly. When they examine clean hands under a special light, the fluorescent dyes can still be detected.

During pesticide training this winter, Blackwelder plans to introduce GAPs principles. He wants these concepts to become second nature to growers.

In Sampson County, Osborne and Sanders conducted a training program for DL&B, a produce operation that grows peppers, cucumbers, squash and eggplant. Sampson agent Allan Thornton, a member of the food safety team, says he lets growers know the training is available, but has not had many requests from growers yet.

GAPs will come at a cost to producers, Thornton said. So until growers are convinced the practices will either benefit their income or help them to meet buyers’ standards, growers are not likely to bite, he said.

But Thornton sees change coming. The grocery store industry has been so impressed with N.C. State’s produce safety program that some major food chains have said that they will buy only from produce operations that have been through the training program. Such market pressure will get growers’ attention, he said.

“The money spent on GAPs won’t necessarily produce a profit return,” Thornton said, “but it might mean the difference in being in business or out of business.”

The produce safety program will become more important as the U.S. Department of Agriculture implements its Fresh Produce Grading and Quality Certification program. The voluntary program allows produce growers and handlers to certify that GAPs are used in their operations to ensure food safety.

Inspectors from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Cooperative Grading Service will inspect facilities and issue a federal-state certificate. Cooperative Extension will provide education about GAPs and the certification program.

Other tools in the fresh produce safety training program include:

• A Spanish video, whose English title is, “Wash Your Hands: For the Children.” It emphasizes the importance of hand washing – one of the eight GAPs – when arriving at work and after bathroom trips.

• A growers’ recall plan. The recall plan shows that growers can track down and recall shipments of fresh produce in the event of microbial contamination. It includes information on how growers will give notice of a recall, how they will track the recall’s effectiveness, as well as procedures for recalling potentially injurious products and for identifying, collecting, warehousing and controlling those products.

• Brochures for major Southern produce crops, explaining the application of GAPs for each crop. The brochures cover tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers, sweet corn, root crops, citrus, green beans, peas, snap beans, melons, peaches and berries.

With more and more consumer pressure to ensure food safety, the demand for programs like GAPs will only increase. Thanks to the Southern Regional Fresh Produce Food Safety Program, Southeastern produce growers have the training tools they need to ensure their fruits and vegetables meet safety standards that will satisfy consumers and regulatory agencies.

Related story: North Carolina Food Safety Alliance


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