Produce Safety: North Carolina’s Fresh Produce Safety Task Force

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[Farmlaw Editor’s note: the narrative below was written by Dr. Elena Toro Rogers, Dept. of Horticultural Science, NC State University, and Dr. Chris Harris, N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Food & Drug Division, Chair and Past-Chair (respectively) of the North Carolina Fresh Produce Safety Task Force (NCFPSTF). The NCFPSTF was formed in 2007 and has worked over the past decade to inform producers of their responsibilities in response to the Food Safety Modernization Act, (21 U.S.C. §2201 et seq.) (FSMA). Signed into law in 2011, FSMA authorized the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to propose rules for fresh produce safety, in an effort to stem increasingly broad outbreaks of food-borne diseases through our nation’s food distribution systems, with regulation starting at the farm level. In the decade since, FDA has issued proposed and final rules and guidance documents. The NCFPSTF has worked as a broad collaboration to keep farmers informed of their responsibilities, and to be prepared for what regulations might be coming. The narrative below is reprinted by permission of the authors.]

The NC Fresh Produce Safety Task Force (NCFPSTF), founded in 2007, is a network of interagency, educational/research, non-profit and industry stakeholders across the NC agricultural community working within the area of produce safety on North Carolina farms. The NC Fresh Produce Safety Task Force minimizes food safety risks and enhances the economic competitiveness of North Carolina’s fresh produce industry. Members of the Task Force provide programmatic updates and discuss timely issues at monthly meetings. NCFPSTF is a part of the Governor’s Food Defense Task Force.

NCFPSTF members include representatives from NC State University Produce Safety Team, N.C. Cooperative Extension, NCDA&CS Food & Drug Division Produce Safety Office, N.C. A&T State University, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, NC Farm Bureau Federation, NC Soil & Water, produce growers, and others.

Education is one of the most important aspects of NCFPSTF. In 2020, NCFPSTF stakeholders have used online platforms to deliver educational programs to farms in order to help them understand how COVID-19 affects all those involved in fruit and vegetable production, how to properly clean, sanitize or disinfect work areas and how to apply guidance issued by CDC, FDA, and DOL at the farm level.

Facilitating and moderating the impact of Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rules (FSMA PSR) implementation on North Carolina farms is an important part of the NCFPSTF work.

FSMA Produce Safety Rules (PSR) mandated food safety training for farms has been a focus for the past years. The NC State University Produce Safety Team and NCDA&CS have continued to provide the Produce Safety Alliance (PSA) Training for farm owners and supervisors. To date more than 700 participants have completed the training. Growers attending PSA training receive grower manuals provided by NCDA&CS Food&Drug Protection Division Produce Safety Program. NCFPSTF also hosted PSA Train the Trainer Sessions in North Carolina to build regional capacity for FSMA PSR training.

The NC State Extension Produce Safety Team also provides technical support to farms on request, education, and guidance to fruit and vegetable growers to successfully implement Good Agricultural Practices and successfully pass 3rd Party Audits and Certifications required by buyers, and deepen the understanding of fresh produce safety in the farm environment as well as COVID-19 related information. Training programs are being offered in-person and online, and Spanish programs and information are also provided. During early 2020, three in-depth workshops were offered about on-farm water treatment. In addition, two hands-on workshops discussing cleaning and sanitation practices at produce farms were offered in Eastern and Western, NC. Videos demonstrating proper harvest equipment cleaning techniques and commodity-specific online and in-person training are available with more in the works.

North Carolina A&T State University has produced videos to help farmers adopt technologies at the farm and has provided technical assistance to small farms. The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association has been heavily involved in the delivery of both in-person and online training to help farmers successfully complete food safety audits and GAP certifications.

FSMA PSR implementation has moved forward within the last year. The program’s early focus has been to assist growers in understanding compliance requirements, work on the farm inventory through outreach, and for inspection staff to complete the training sessions necessary to successfully conduct inspections and investigations. The NCDA&CS Food & Drug Division Produce Safety Office has conducted 33 On-Farm Readiness Reviews (OFFR). These non-regulatory, voluntary reviews offer the farmer a customized look at their produce safety practices. OFFR are an opportunity for farms to gain confidential, detailed information regarding the areas where the farm may or may not have FSMA PSR compliance issues. The NCDA&CS Food & Drug Division Produce Safety Office has also conducted 31 initial produce farm inspections.

As FSMA PSR implementation continues, the NCFPSTF is targeting educational sessions and demonstrations to focus on areas such as: Cleaning and sanitation practices; harvest practices, and record keeping, emphasizing specific commodities where appropriate.

NCDA&CS has secured produce handling equipment to construct packing lines specifically for the purpose of training produce farmers. These new demonstration lines are located at the Mills River and Salisbury Research Stations, in the heart of production areas near fruit and vegetable farms. Apples, for example, are the focus at Mills River and general produce packing is the focus in Salisbury. The equipment is available for training growers on food safety in pre-harvest/post-harvest, grading, and holding. Additionally, a mobile unit is available for training at any extension office, research station, or agriculture center in the Southern Region.

Future educational plans include sessions to assist farmers as they prepare to comply with FSMA Traceability Rules.

NCFPSTF hosted meetings

  • September 16, 2020 3rd NC Produce Safety Professionals Conference via Zoom. More than 100 registered from nine states and Puerto Rico. Topic: “Sanitation in the New Normal.”
  • October 10, 2019 2nd NC Produce Safety Professionals Conference, Mills River, NC 60 participants. Topic: “Cleaning and Sanitation” (targeted to produce operations).