As the 1990s were coming to a close, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture (NJDA) and other agencies were already looking well into the 21st century when it came to food safety.
It was in 1998, in fact, when a supermarket chain sent a letter to leafy green growers in the state to say it would stop buying their produce unless those growers had a verifiable food safety plan in place.
“That was in March of 1998, and at that point no one really knew what the supermarket chain officials meant,” says Wesley Kline, agricultural agent with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Cumberland County. He’s also a professor at Rutgers University. “There would be harvesting in May, so there was a lot of scrambling that went on. In the end, the supermarket backed off, but that was the basis for starting our program.”
It was a program that would become the first statewide third-party audit system in the country to help growers evaluate their operations for food safety. The system, which was developed by the NJDA and the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES), was later incorporated into the USDA’s Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Handling Practices Audit Verification Program.
“It’s basically a checklist where we go through and audit a producer’s plan and review their food safety practices,” says Chris Kleinguenther, chief of the Bureau of Commodity Inspections and Grading with NJDA.
Farmers, shippers and packers design their food safety plans to agree with these checklists, which have evolved greatly over the years. These food safety plans take a good look at an operation’s health and hygiene practices and education, as well as water quality in growing, harvesting and packing of produce. Auditees are required to do risk assessments of wildlife intrusion, food safety risks, water management systems, land use history, and any other factor that would cause a food safety risk.
“Food safety audits have actually changed the face of farming,” Kleinguenther says. “A great deal of time, training, education and documentation is needed to develop and comply to a food safety plan. Auditors are also required to have a great deal of agricultural background, training and education in order to perform audits. Every year the auditor must complete at least 20 hours of professional development.
He adds, “The NJDA and Rutgers Cooperative Extension are constantly working hand in hand almost daily to help New Jersey’s agricultural community meet the needs of food safety compliance and succeed in the produce industry.”
New Food Safety Law Begins
The NJDA and NJAES are also working to prepare farmers, ranchers and others in the ag industry for the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which was made law in 2011, requiring implementation by 2016. It expanded the regulatory authority of the FDA beyond processed and prepared foods to also include raw product on the farm.
Not surprisingly, one of the main ways producers are being prepared for the FSMA is through educational programs conducted by the NJDA and NJAES. More than 600 individuals have gone through food safety, third-party audits and train- the-trainer sessions since 1999.
“We started out trying to expose growers to what was going on as far as food safety and some of the outbreaks,” Kline says. “We would give 15-minute to half-hour presentations. From there, we developed an all-day training, initially just on food safety and then on how you prepare for third-party audits and different steps.
“Today, we give between eight to 10 full-day trainings in the state. Then we offer to do an on-farm walk-through, where we go out, take their plan and go through whatever audit they’re going to get, try to point out to them areas where they may be deficient before they actually go through an audit.”