SANDUSKY, Ohio — Building on the belief Ohioans should have a food safety plan that matches their own state, leaders of an Ohio-specific program updated growers on its progress at the annual produce growers and marketers conference in Sandusky, Jan. 17-19.
Known as the Ohio Fresh Produce Marketing Agreement — the voluntary food safety and certification plan evaluates producers and marketers based on their size of operation — with scale-appropriate requirements for three different size producers.
Project Manager Karl Kolb said the plan could be in place as early as June, if it gets the nod from the Ohio Department of Agriculture and producers cast their own approval.
So far, 100 signatures were gathered at the conference in support of the plan. Kolb hopes to present more than 1,500 signatures to the ODA, a number he feels is obtainable, especially with support coming from Ohio Farm Bureau Federation and other farm organizations.
The plan originated at an Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers conference a couple years ago. Its goal is to maintain the safety of food in ways that are affordable and applicable to Ohio growers.
“Farmers know that they’re joining something that is not regulatory-operated but operated by (someone) like themselves,” Kolb said.
The program would be run by a board of 29 members — two-thirds of which are required to be producers. It focuses on the major areas of food handling and production — and how they relate to food safety.
Kolb delivered a three-part discussion on the program at the OPGMA conference, concluding with a session sponsored by Ohio State University staff, who discussed their progress with Extension’s Fruit and Vegetable Safety Team.
The team of researchers have put together the Fruit and Vegetable Safety Program Workbook, which encourages growers to document information pertaining to water, soil amendments, good handling practices and traceability.
The workbook shows produce farmers how to make maps of their farm, record and trace produce to its place of origination, and how to develop a standard operating procedure.
The workbook also contains contact information for key food safety and inspection sources, and an extensive glossary of food safety and handling terms.
Ohio’s food safety policies still will be subject to federal regulation. But if the state can demonstrate its ability to self-regulate, it may be able to control who regulates, and how.
“This tells the nation … that we can take care of ourselves,” Kolb said.
One major federal regulation — the Food Safety Modernization Act — was signed in early January by President Barack Obama.
Kolb sees it more as an inspection program, where as the Ohio produce plan is about inspections, but also certification. When farmers are certified as safe, it becomes a marketing tool.”This certifies the farmer,” Kolb said. “He can take that (certification) to his buyers.”
A difficult fact about food safety, as speakers noted, is that it’s impossible to prevent all foodborne illnesses.
However, best practices and improved safety measures are making a difference.
Mark Koenig, OSU Extension director in Sandusky County, showed slides of what a fingerprint looks like under a microscope, when hands are unwashed. Bacteria nearly filled the image.
Hands washed with only water reduced the bacteria by roughly a third, while hands washed with soap, and finally, with soap and sanitizer, nearly eliminated the bacteria.
Kolb is encouraged by the number of Ohioans who have demonstrated interested in their own state program, and said other states are looking to become certified through the same plan.
He’s heard of producers as far away as California who would like to join, because an earlier plan approved in their state — the National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement — reportedly was not well suited for smaller producers.
The Ohio plan takes a scale-appropriate, three-tier approach.
Residents of other states cannot vote on the Ohio plan, but can use it as part of their own food safety plans. It does not take the place of the California plan, but gives producers another option.