When shopping for dairy products, shellfish, or fresh produce, have you ever wondered what happens behind the scenes to ensure the food brought to market is as safe as possible?
“Food safety is at the core of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture’s mission,” Agriculture Commissioner Steven K. Reviczky says. “It’s very important that consumers have confidence in the food products they’re buying – if they have confidence, farms are going to be more viable and sell more products.
“We inspect and regulate the products themselves, and we implement animal disease control and prevention programs that also affect human health and safety,” Reviczky adds.
According to Dr. Bruce Sherman, director of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Regulation and Inspection, examples of the agency’s food-safety-related inspections at licensed and regulated dairy entities include dairy farms, milk tanker trucks, milk processing plants, and cheese and yogurt manufacturers. In addition, agency inspectors certify laboratories that conduct dairy product and water testing.
“Connecticut is one of many states that participate in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s milk safety program,” Sherman says. “This ensures uniformity in inspections across the country.”
Shellfish are another high-risk item and require stringent controls to make sure they’re safe.
“The majority of Connecticut shellfish producers demonstrate a strong commitment to ensuring the shellfish they produce are safe,” says Kristin DeRosia-Banick, environmental analyst III for the agency’s Bureau of Aquaculture.
DeRosia-Banick says that all licensed shellfish producers in the state are Shellstock Shippers, which means they can ship shellfish in interstate commerce. In order to receive and retain a license, the agency inspects harvesters and wholesale dealers at least twice per year.
“These inspections allow us to identify any failures in sanitation or handling that may create a food safety hazard. The inspection process includes an evaluation of all aspects of shellfish processing, from the growing area and continuing through the entire chain of distribution,” DeRosia- Banick says.
She adds that the Connecticut Department of Agriculture also preforms environmental assessments of coastal areas where shellfish are harvested, making sure they are not polluted.
Produce is another major area that receives close attention, especially with changes in regulations ahead due to the passing of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)’s Produce Safety Rule.
“This is one of the most significant changes to agriculture in decades,” says Commissioner Reviczky of the Produce Safety Rule. “It’s going to require significant record keeping, investment in infrastructure, and enhancements to procedures on the farm, all geared toward minimizing risk with the goal of ensuring that produce makes it safely to market.”
Though preparing for these changes, the Connecticut Department of Agriculture has already been helping produce farmers minimize risks through education, assistance, and voluntary audits.
“Over the past seven years, we’ve been conducting Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Handling Practices (GHP) audits for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA),” Sherman says. “These are voluntary audits available to producers based on industry recognized food safety practices and recommendations made by FDA.”
Reviczky adds that with all sectors, education is key to keeping food safe.
“Our agency – as is the case with ag departments across the country – enforces regulations with the mindset that you educate before and while you regulate,” he says. “Our top priority is to work with the regulated community to gain compliance, first through education, and then through technical and financial assistance.”
All involved agree that food safety is a crucial aspect of keeping Connecticut’s industry successful.
Everyone Plays a Role
Diane Hirsch, senior Extension educator/food safety at the University of Connecticut, says there are several reasons food safety is important to Connecticut agriculture.
“First, the competitiveness of the industry. Some markets require that farms have GAP audits addressing safe production, harvest and post-harvest handling. These aren’t regulations, but customer requirements,” she says. “Also, an outbreak tied to your product could mean the end of your business. An outbreak tied to a specific product, say, strawberries, may impact other strawberry growers negatively. And ultimately, no one wants to make a customer sick.”
Hirsch adds that consumers should be aware that everyone involved in food production plays a role in food safety, from the farmers to the distributors to the retailers.
“If consumers understand that everyone is playing their part, they will gain trust in the food system – that the food they purchase is safe until they get it, then they take over and must handle and prepare it safely as well,” she says.
What is FSMA’s Produce Safety Rule?
The FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is a law enacted in January 2011 to ensure the national food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it.
Its Produce Safety Rule addresses a number of key components in fresh fruit and vegetable production, including agricultural water quality and testing; biological soil amendments; sprouts; domesticated and wild animals; worker training and health/hygiene; and equipment, tools and buildings.
While the rule officially became effective January 1, 2016, it allows time for farms to become fully compliant based on the size of the operation and its average annual produce sales.
What is Gap/GHP?
Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Handling Practices (GHP) are voluntary inspection programs that help producers reduce the risk of microbial contamination when producing and handling food.
Farmers follow the science-based agricultural practices reducing the risks regarding water, manure use, sanitation and hygiene, on the farm and in the field, as well as those related to harvesting, packing and transporting.
The Connecticut Department of Agriculture performs the audits for Connecticut producers under a cooperative agreement with the USDA. University of Connecticut Extension offers GAP/GHP training workshops and publications, which include food safety guidelines, templates, record keeping forms, self-audit information, and additional resources.