From no-cost training sessions to on-farm consultations, the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) is taking a committed, educational approach to help the state’s fruit and vegetable farms comply with the most sweeping changes to food safety law in 70 years.
The Food Safety Modernization Act, nicknamed FSMA (“fizz-ma”), strengthens food safety standards through the Food & Drug Administration’s renewed proactive focus to prevent foodborne illness. The complex law, signed in 2011, gradually takes effect with multiple compliance deadlines through 2024.
In response, ODA has trained its 18 existing food safety field inspectors to help affected Ohio produce growers prepare for one of the law’s first components, the Produce Safety Rule.
“The ultimate goal is safe produce distributed from and throughout Ohio,” says Matt Fout, produce and food safety supervisor for ODA. “With this being a new regulation, we’re working to train our staff and get a good understanding of what is required. We’re also working with growers, to make sure they understand and have the resources available to understand what is required of them.”
How the Produce Safety Rule Affects Growers
FSMA includes seven rules that collectively affect anyone who handles a sizable amount of food, including growers, processors, handling facilities, truckers, feed manufacturers or food importers. Within the law, the Produce Safety Rule phases in growers based on value of produce sales. The rule initially impacts roughly 50 Ohio farms that grow and sell leafy greens, tomatoes, cabbage, apples, peaches and other produce primarily to wholesale markets. The law will impact more growers in 2019.
The Produce Safety Rule sets food safety standards for farms to minimize the risks of contamination that could occur while fruits and vegetables are grown, harvested, picked, packed and held. In some cases, farms already comply with parts of the law or will need to keep more detailed records of current practices.
“The government is being more proactive in inspecting for safety the produce on the farms,” Fout says. “If the farms already are under a voluntary third-party audit, a lot of the records they are keeping and practices they are doing may meet this regulation.”
Fout encourages produce growers to schedule an educational farm consultation with ODA field staff. The consultation allows field staff to review the regulation with growers, view the farm’s current practices, make recommendations, and distribute fact sheets and sample records.
Meanwhile, ODA will continue to host free, regional produce safety training sessions for growers throughout the state. The one-day course dives into FSMA’s Produce Safety Rule and awards participants with required certification. The session covers the rule’s requirements, such as worker hygiene, livestock practices, soil amendments, domestic and wild animal access to the farm, and water use in the context of preventing fruit and vegetable contamination, and essentially, foodborne illness.
“Produce safety is definitely our ultimate goal,” Fout says. “With this being a new regulation and something that we haven’t inspected for on farms, we’re both going to be learning and growing through this process. We’re going to work with farms to understand this regulation and take an educational approach to the consultation process and inspection process to gain compliance.”