Ohio initiative offers food safety worker training down on the farm


BOWLING GREEN, Ohio – On their way to the produce aisle of your neighborhood grocery store, those cucumbers you are about to buy may have picked up an undesirable pathogen.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, foodborne pathogens annually cause an estimated 325,000 illnesses resulting in hospitalization and 76 million cases of gastrointestinal disease.

Approximately 5,000 deaths are caused by foodborne pathogens each year.

On-farm efforts. To make sure your favorite veggies are as safe as they are nutritious, Ohio State University Extension is promoting food safety right where it all begins: on the farm.

The Ohio Specialty Crop Food Safety Initiative was launched this year to improve the adoption of sound agricultural practices by specialty crop producers and their employees.

The initiative includes on-farm consultations, food safety workshops and a variety of educational materials.

It’s already made a difference for Mark Guess, owner of Gro-Co Family Farms near Jamestown, Ohio.

Sessions in Spanish. Ohio State Agricultural Business Enhancement Center’s Mary Donnell and Francisco Espinoza visited the Greene County vegetable farm this summer to teach 30 Spanish-speaking workers about personal hygiene and safe produce-handling practices.

“The incidence of foodborne illnesses associated with fruits and vegetables has tripled in the last 20 years,” said Donnell.

Donnell is an Extension agent who also serves as the Ohio collaborator with the national Good Agricultural Practices Program.

“More and more grocers require producers to incorporate Good Agricultural Practices into their farming operations. This training helps growers stay competitive.”

Farmer benefit. Guess agrees.

“Food safety is an important issue for us as growers,” Guess said. “But it’s also very important for the chains we supply. They want to know what we are doing to prevent contamination and how we are handling vegetables.

“Their customers are the end users, and they don’t want any kind of outbreak taking place because we mishandled or contaminated the produce.”

Ohio State presentations reached some 500 workers in 2003.

Back to basics. The sessions teach workers about basic personal hygiene practices, such as proper hand washing after going to the bathroom.

Workers learn how produce can become contaminated and what they can do to prevent that from happening.

“The workers are a very important part of this program because they are the ones handling the produce,” Guess pointed out.

“They harvest it, bring it in the packing house, clean it, grade it, sort it and pack it into the cartons for shipment. They are the last people to touch the produce, and teaching them about worker hygiene is very important.”

Partnership. The initiative is a partnership between OSU Extension’s Agricultural Business Enhancement Center in Bowling Green, Mid American Ag and Hort Services, the Center for Innovative Food Technology and the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

It is funded in part or totally through a grant from ODA, the State of Ohio and the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the provisions of the Specialty Crop Grant.

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Available training

* Food Safety Workshop II – Managing Liability, Nov. 20 at the Columbus Marriott North. For details, visit www.midamservices.org (click on “Events/Projects,” then “Projects,” then “Ohio Food Safety Initiative”).

* Growers interested in receiving on-site Food Safety Begins on the Farm training sessions can contact Mary Donnell at 419-354-6916, donnell.8@osu.edu