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US: Cornell leads effort to train growers on new produce safety rules

Cornell is leading a national alliance aimed at improving the safety of fresh produce and helping fruit and vegetable growers meet new regulatory requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

By Krisy Gashler, Cornell Chronicle

The act, signed by President Barack Obama in 2011, was prompted by multiple high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks associated with many different food items. The law marked the biggest overhaul of federal oversight in the food industry since the 1930s and shifted the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) focus from investigating foodborne illness outbreaks to preventing them.

Since the act’s passage, the FDA has worked to develop regulations that meet the requirements of the FSMA, and has provided funding to facilitate education and outreach. For rules governing fresh produce, the FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tapped Cornell to lead the Produce Safety Alliance, tasked with training growers to understand and implement the provisions with the FSMA Produce Safety Rule.

Based in Cornell’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York, the Produce Safety Alliance has spent the past four years developing a nationwide Grower Training Curriculum. This involved creating working committees with partners across the country, hosting focus groups with farmers and working closely with the FDA to make sure the curriculum reflects expectations outlined in the regulations.

The alliance recently began holding Train-the-Trainer courses nationwide that allow extension educators to implement their training by guiding fresh fruit and vegetable farmers and packers in practices that will protect the nation’s food supply. The trainers will work throughout the country and internationally to help growers and packers prepare their operations for FSMA compliance.

“Fresh fruits and vegetables are good for you – they reduce heart disease and risks for certain types of cancer, and help in maintenance of a healthy weight, but there are food safety risks in the production environment because produce is grown in nature, under open skies. Risks can be found in things that come into contact with fresh produce, such as soil, water and workers’ hands,” said Betsy Bihn, a senior extension associate in the Department of Food Science who directs the Produce Safety Alliance. “The purpose of the Produce Safety Alliance is to help growers reduce whatever risks there may be and make produce as safe as it can possibly be.”

The biggest growers – those who sell more than $500,000 worth of produce each year – must begin complying with the new regulations in January 2018. Farms with produce sales between $250,000 and $500,000 have until January 2019 to comply, and farms with sales between $25,000 and $250,000 have until January 2020. Farms that sell less than $25,000 worth of produce each year are exempted from the rules, and other exemptions that may apply to some growers.

“Despite the fact that some growers may be eligible for exemptions or otherwise excluded from the FSMA Produce Safety Rule requirements, the Produce Safety Alliance curriculum has valuable information for all growers. It is important for growers to understand laws that impact the industry as a whole and it is likely many buyers will require growers to follow the FSMA Produce Safety Rules whether or not growers are subject to the rule requirements.” said Bihn.

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