When we pick up a bag of juicy Wisconsin apples at the grocery store, we take them home to our families, confident in the safety of our purchase. The first phase of federally required on-farm produce safety inspections began in summer 2019, and officials see Wisconsin farms upholding the state’s reputation for safe food.
The produce safety rule represents one of the first phases of implementation for the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), considered the most sweeping change to food safety law in 70 years. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) renewed the law to focus on preventing foodborne illnesses, rather than just responding to them.
State-led inspections began in summer 2019 on Wisconsin’s largest fruit and vegetable farms growing apples, carrots, onions and other produce that people typically eat raw. More farm inspections and other compliance deadlines will follow through 2024.
“Our ultimate goal is to raise food safety awareness with our Wisconsin growers,” says Mike Mosher, outreach and compliance specialist for produce safety with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). “Fortunately, we already have a community well-versed in food safety standards and practices. Wisconsin has a good reputation when it comes to food safety.”
Wisconsin Prepares to Comply
The goal is to reduce the risks of contamination that could occur while fruits and vegetables are grown, harvested, picked, packed and stored. DATCP offers low-cost grower training and no-cost, on-farm readiness reviews to help Wisconsin produce growers prepare for the first phase of the rule’s implementation.
Mosher says the produce safety team, in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension, has sponsored more than 20 FDA-approved grower training sessions at regional locations throughout the state. The one-day course covers FDA’s produce safety rule requirements, such as worker hygiene, soil amendments, domestic and wild animal access to the farm, and water quality standards.
“This class gives growers a basic understanding of food safety and especially how it impacts produce that people typically eat raw,” Mosher says.
Inspections for Wisconsin’s largest fruit and vegetable farms began in summer 2019 and impact about 60 growers, Mosher says. In 2020, field inspectors will review medium-size farms, and smaller farms must comply in 2021.
Education Precedes Regulation
Federal law requires that states administer the produce safety rule and its inspections. In response, DATCP hired and trained four field inspectors, and other staff members help with outreach efforts.
Mosher encourages produce farms of any size to schedule an on-farm review with DATCP or UW-Madison Division of Extension staff. The reviews have no regulatory paperwork and are intended to assess, educate and inform about common compliance issues. The review is not an audit or inspection.
“We walk around the farm with the grower, look at their on-farm practices and evaluate them for the food safety standards that are established in the produce safety rule,” Mosher says. “We think that is the best tool growers have to prepare for the inspections themselves.”
In most cases, farms already comply with most parts of the law and just need to keep more detailed records of current practices, he says. Information online at safeproduce.wi.gov can help growers navigate the requirements and ways to prepare.
“DATCP takes food safety very seriously,” Mosher says. “We continue to build on this reputation through grower partnerships, to ensure consumers have confidence in buying fresh produce from Wisconsin.”