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
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.
States 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
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
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 didnt 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.
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
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. States
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 wont 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
Other tools in the fresh
produce safety training program include:
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
Related story: North
Carolina Food Safety Alliance