Produce farmers place new emphasis on food safety

Karen Faster, WisContext
About 48 million people get sick from foodborne illness every year in the U.S. About 9 million of these illnesses are caused by major pathogens. Produce accounts for about 46 percent of those illnesses, many acquired from eating leafy green or vine-stalk vegetables, including tomatoes, cantaloupe and melons. Twenty-three percent of deaths from foodborne illness are due to produce.

MADISON - Farmers who follow food safety best practices produce better quality produce that last longer on the market and in consumers' kitchens. The harvest, storage and handling processes intended to minimize pathogens that cause illness in humans also target the organisms that cause produce to decay.

An emphasis on food safety practices at the farm level is growing. University of Wisconsin-Extension organic agriculture specialist Erin Silva discussed these practices and new federal regulations in a Nov. 12, 2015, lecture recorded for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place.

Farmers don't want their customers to get sick, and they don't want to be liable should a foodborne illness break out, Silva said. Meanwhile, growing competition means wholesalers are asking farmers for written food safety plans before allowing them access to produce auctions or grocery stores.

A food safety plan encompasses a farm's practices to ensure its products are safe and the presence of pathogens is minimized, said Silva, who is a professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at UW-Madison. Farmers choose to devise these plans, which do not involve anyone inspecting their operations. Food buyers may have a plan template they want farmers to follow, though. The documentation buyers may request can take several forms, she said, including third-party audits.

A third-party audit does involve someone coming to a farm to review its food safety plan and the practices it outlines, Silva said. Most farms pay for such an audit only when a buyer requires it.

"If farm[er]s are wanting to sell their produce to those specific buyers, they do need to be very diligent and very deliberate about establishing food safety plans and addressing food safety on their farm[s]," she said.

Farmers care about the public perception of their foods and about specific consumer sectors such as farmers' markets and institutional purchasers, Silva explained. The public is aware of foodborne illness outbreaks that can be traced to produce, which could be especially problematic for farms that sell directly through farmers' markets or community-supported agriculture systems.

The federal government has new sets of rules for produce food safety that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration crafted under the Food Safety Modernization Act. Since it was passed in 2011, this law's requirements have gradually been defined and implemented, but they remain subject to changing federal priorities.