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Enhancing Food Safety Knowledge of Small to Medium-Sized Produce Growers in Tennessee and Illinois


The goal of this project is to train small and medium sized produce growers the practical applications of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), leading to improvements in produce safety. To succeed in the 21st century economy, limited resource produce growers must be trained and empowered to meet food safety requirements and consumers' demand for safe fresh produce. The overall purpose of this project is to develop customized food safety plans for small to medium-sized produce farms in Tennessee and Illinois. These plans, together with audit process, are keys to securing third party certification for GAPs. Small and medium sized produce growers will be trained and empowered to meet the consumers' demand for safe produce to ensure their competitiveness in the fresh produce industry. The success of this proposed project will be essential in directing future GAPs training for small and medium sized produce growers and become a prototype model of the States of Tennessee and the nation at large. <P>The objectives for the proposed project are: <br/>1) To acquire feedback on opportunities and constraints facing small and medium-sized produce farms. Surveys will be conducted to identify weaknesses and strengths in growers' current food safety practices. Potential food safety risk throughout growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, and transportation will be identified. <br/>2) To ascertain sources of contamination and profiles of foodborne pathogens in small to medium-sized produce farms. Microbiological analyses of produce will be conducted to determine coliforms, generic Escherichia coli counts, Salmonella, and E. coli O157:H7. This objective will provide background information on important potential microbial contaminants of local fresh produce. This will enable the identification of critical control points and institute GAPs. <br/>3) To provide GAPs training and technically assist writing food safety plans (FSPs). This objective will implement food safety programs for small to medium-scale produce growers in Tennessee and Illinois. Workshops will be organized to train growers on GAPs and GHPs and technically assisted in writing food safety plans (FSPs), through interactive hands-on workshops.This will reduce the risks of microbial contamination of fresh produce and prepare the small to medium scale produce growers for GAPs compliance. Small Farm Safety Risk Assessment (SFRAp) tool (represents produce) for qualitative risk assessment to evaluate potential food safety hazards on produce farm will also be used during farm visits. <br/>4) To engage and increase student's participation in food safety outreach program. Both undergraduate and graduate students will be engaged in the food safety outreach and research in fresh produce production. Students will be involved in microbiological analysis of farm samples and interact with produce growers to actually understand what goes on in the farms. This will enhance students' knowledge in food safety and also prepare for their successful careers in food and agriculture systems.

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Non-Technical Summary:<br/>
Consumption of fresh produce in the United States has increased substantially in recent years, in part due to increased awareness of health benefits that fresh produce provides. However, outbreaks of food-borne illness linked to fruits and vegetables have become more common. In response to the continuing concern about produce safety, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) programs to give logical guidance in reducing the risks of microbial contamination of fruits and vegetables. The Government's efforts for safe produce are a step in the right direction to ensure public health. However, the challenge with GAPs is a one-size-fits-all approach places small and mid-scale produce farms at a competitive disadvantage due to their limited resources. Federal Drug Administration's (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) signed in January 2011 grants the FDA authority to regulate produce growers. Produce growers will be required to comply with FSMA to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it. To succeed and grow in the fresh produce industry, limited resource produce growers must be adequately informed, technically prepared and organized to meet new/upcoming food safety regulations with governments playing a facilitating role. Pre- and post- focus groups, each of progressive produce growers will be selected to form focus groups through which background information on knowledge and actual activities carried from produce farms will be assessed. Sources of fresh produce contamination, microbiological quality, and safety of the fresh produce will be assed in selected farms. Microbiological analyses of produce will be conducted to determine coliforms, generic Escherichia coli counts, Salmonella, and E. coli O157:H7. Tennessee State University will host a one-day train-the-trainer GAPs workshop. Once trained, Extension Educators will assist and train farmers in their counties and regions to evaluate their food safety practices. Workshops on GAPs and GHPs will be conducted each year of the project. In order to encourage farmers, those who show commitment, involved all throughout the training program, and willing to practice GAPs, will be selected and fully assisted for audit. The anticipated outcome and impacts of this proposed project include: (1) a reference outreach center for Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Good Handling practices (GHPs) guidelines for small to medium-sized produce farms; (2) individual food safety plans in small and medium-sized produce farms; (3) producers implementing GAPs on their farms; (4) approximately 45 producers pass third party audits (5) an online database/website on food safety relating to fresh produce and (6) one graduate thesis will be produced. As result of these products, there will be decreased risk of foodborne illness associated with produce and consumers will restore confidence for local grown produce.
On-farm visits of the focus group participants will be conducted to gather detailed information on actual activities carried in fresh produce production. Data collection will be on (1) barriers to implementing best practices in produce production; (2) farm management; (3) fresh produce handling practices; (4) source of water; (5) presence of wild and farm animals; (6) use of raw manure; and (7) maintenance of records. Fresh produce samples will be collected and tested for nonpathogenic Escherichia coli, as indicator of fecal contamination. Microbiological samples from farm grounds (soil), processing equipment (harvesting and storage containers, knives, processing tables), and transportation vehicles will be tested for pathogens. Preventing microbial contamination requires an integrated approach and therefore, the Cooperative Extension Educators will be trained to understand their role in reducing foodborne illness, and to have the knowledge to improve farming practices. Once trained, Extension Educators will assist and train farmers in their counties and regions to evaluate their food safety practices. Extension Educators will be provided with laptops and USB flash drives that have Cornell university food safety plan template. The USB drives will also contain Small Farm Safety Risk Assessment (SFRAp) Tool (p represents produce). This is an easy-to-use tool and extension educators will be trained to utilize it as a qualitative risk assessment approach for small and mid-size farms; to evaluate food safety practices and to assess potential food safety hazards on farms.A workshop on GAPs and GHPs will be conducted each year of the project. Produce growers from Tennessee and Illinois will attend the workshop. The GAPs trainings will utilize teaching curriculum that has been adopted from Cornell University. Produce growers will be trained through hands-on workshops on pre- and post- harvesting handling procedures, manure management, and recording keeping of farm operation and log sheets for daily activities. Growers will be trained on food safety practices through on-site visits to ensure they are actively implementing, monitoring and maintaining their own on farm food safety programs. The goal of this objective is to increase the capacity and improve the quality of outreach and extension programs by engaging students to enhance their success and educational experience. Students will be engaged in the food safety outreach and provide an unparalleled experiential learning opportunity. Evaluation will not merely be an activity at the end of the training program, but will be an on-going process throughout the project that will allow the trainers assess how well the program will be progressing and that objectives are being met. Outcome performance measures of the project will be (1) improved pre-post test assessment scores; (2) number of formal written food safety plans (FSPs), (3) and approximately 85% individual producers passing third party audits.

Kilonzo-Nthenge, Agnes; Nahashon, Samuel; Tegegne, Fisseha; Pitchay, Dharma
Tennessee State University
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