Safe food starts on the farm

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As the recent salmonella outbreak linked to raw tomatoes fades from the nation’s headlines, supermarket produce managers are still grasping for ways to ensure that the fresh fruits and vegetables they sell are safe.

But a food-safety specialist in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences says farmers have a role to play in reducing the risk of contamination.

Luke LaBorde, associate professor of food science, says growing safe spinach, onions, tomatoes or other produce is a quality-control issue, and farms that adhere to a series of federally developed recommendations are less likely to become involved in an outbreak of food borne illness.

“Microbial contamination of fresh produce can happen anywhere,” LaBorde said.

Guidelines

Although there are no government-mandated food-safety regulations for farms, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has a list of recommendations — the Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables — that offer techniques for preventing on-farm produce contamination.

These techniques — called “good agricultural practices” — are designed to prevent contamination of produce on the farm through personal sanitation, correct use of manure and compost, proper bathroom facilities and monitoring of other areas where contamination can occur.

There are no laws that require growers to use “good agricultural practices,” but grocery stores, restaurants and fresh-cut processors who want to protect themselves from liability are demanding that suppliers demonstrate that they are using the techniques.

“Good agricultural practices” guidelines present growers with proven practices and standards in health and hygiene, water quality, soil supplements and environmental hazards. To provide grocery stores and restaurants with evidence that they are following scientifically supported practices, growers typically must submit to an inspection from an independent third party auditor at some point during the harvest season.

Audits

The Fresh Produce Audit Verification program, a new USDA service is available through the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. In addition, Penn State Cooperative Extension and the Department of Food Science are developing a “good agricultural practices” educational program to help growers understand farm food-safety risks and develop a food-safety plan.

“One day, we’ll see more implementation of GAPs and farm inspectors and consumers will have a way to identify the inspected farms — perhaps a placard or label at the grocery store,” LaBorde said. “But, right now, the burden is on the consumer to ask the right questions.”

Despite the publicity accorded to food borne illness outbreaks, the risk of buying contaminated product is quite low, LaBorde said.

“We don’t hear about the 99.99 percent of the produce that’s perfectly safe,” he added.

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