Growings On: Keeping local produce safe

Roger Gates

Across the country, consumers have supported a rapid increase in the purchase of locally grown fruits and vegetables. That trend has been beneficial to local economies and provided an opportunity for many small and beginning farmers. Production of fresh produce requires high labor inputs, often the asset that beginning producers have to invest.

In Georgia, the 2017 farm gate value was $1.15 billion for vegetables and $704.8 million for fruits and nuts, according to the University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development. Much of that production comes from small acreage operations. Those getting into the business often put a lot of their energy into producing quality vegetables, but may not have the education or experience to know how to keep their produce as safe as possible. Often, food safety is one attraction for locally grown produce. Unfortunately, just because it is local does not guarantee safety.

“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 outlets such as farmers markets. Harrison — along with UGA Extension personnel and educators with the Georgia Department of Agriculture, Georgia Organics, the 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.

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 U.S. Food and Drug Administration produce safety regulations. Produce safety trainings have three goals: to keep consumers safe and healthy; to help Georgia’s farmers stay compliant with food safety regulations to market safe food; and to help protect the health of Georgia’s burgeoning local food industry.

“Food safety is just good marketing,” says Harrison. “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 U.S. resulted from fresh produce. The more people opt for fresh, unprocessed produce, the greater the risk of illness when that produce is handled improperly, Harrison said.

Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which updated food safety regulations across several industries, including production agriculture, and for the first time created 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.

In Georgia, more than 20,000 farms harvest 50 acres or less, according to the 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture. According to Harrison, “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.”

Roger Gates is the agricultural and natural resources agent for University of Georgia Extension, Whitfield County. Contact him at roger.gates@uga.edu.

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