Perspectives Online

Extension initiative focuses on year-round fresh produce safety


Diane Ducharme, N.C. State University Program for Value-Added & Alternative Agriculture, uses a blacklight to demonstrate the importance of hand washing at a fresh produce safety training in Wilson, N.C., in March 2009.

Photo by Justin Moore
September is Food Safety Month, and North Carolina Cooperative Extension, in cooperation with the N.C. Fresh Produce Safety Task Force, is leading an initiative to educate fruit and vegetable growers and consumers about measures that can minimize food safety risks. The organization has received more than $250,000 in grant funding to support the statewide Extension and research effort.

Cooperative Extension has conducted train-the-trainer workshops for Extension agents, who, in turn, will train producers. The training focuses on Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and what it takes to obtain GAPs certification. Industry, such as grocery stores, is increasingly demanding that growers they buy from be GAPs certified.

Michael Fagan, N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, checks a hand-washing station for the availability of water, soap, paper towels and proper signage during a Good Agricultural Practives (GAPs) mock audit at Premier Produce in Wilson, N.C., in July 2009.
Photo by Justin Moore
The fresh produce safety curriculum consists of nine training modules that cover GAPs measures, such as verifying the safety of irrigation water, regular hand-washing procedures, packing facility and transportation vehicle cleanliness, maintaining the "cold chain" temperature and establishing traceability. The workshops also include modules focused on managing risks and liability as well as crisis communication.

In addition, a Web site, www.ncfreshproducesafety.org has been developed as a resource for growers, consumers and Extension agents. Additional efforts include development of food safety plan templates for growers to use and adapt to their operations, presentations focusing on fresh produce safety education and active representation on the Governor's Food Safety and Defense Task Force.

Traceability systems research is being conducted by N.C. State University faculty. The research will identify current measures and assess the industry's ability to trace fresh produce in the event of an outbreak or food safety incident triggering a recall. The research will be used to make recommendations for improvements. Researchers are also studying typical North Carolina farming and produce packing and shipping operations.

Proper attire, such as hairnets, gloves and aprons, is an important step in minimizing food safety risks at a packing house. Premier Produce employees clean, sort and pack cantaloupes in Wilson, N.C.
Photo by Justin Moore
Extension specialists and agents will use these studies to develop traceability templates that farmers statewide can use to implement traceability measures cost effectively on their farms.

Other research includes testing irrigation water for potential contamination and looking at ways to reduce risks.

N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension (SARE), USDA Rural Cooperative Development, Agricultural Advancement Consortium of The N.C. Rural Center, Risk Management Agency, N.C. Tomato Growers Association and PPG Inc. provided funding for the fresh produce safety initiative.

N.C. State University’s Collegeg of Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty members serve as co-chairs of the N.C. Fresh Produce Safety Task Force. The task force brings together fresh produce growers, educators, government officials, public policy makers, industry representatives and researchers. It consists of five working groups: education, research, industry and policy relationships, networking and Communications, and executive management oversight.

The co-chairs are Dr. Ben Chapman, CALS Department of 4-H Youth Development and Family and Consumer Sciences; Diane Ducharme, CALS Program for Value-Added & Alternative Agriculture; Dr. Chris Gunter, CALS Department of Horticulture Science; and Dr. Trevor Phister, CALS Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences.

Michael Fagan, N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, questions the harvest crew at Premier Produce to ensure that they have a working knowledge of the company's food safety plan dring a Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) mock audit in Wilson, N.C., in July 2009.
Photo by Justin Moore
In addition to Ducharme, other Program for Value-Added & Alternative Agriculture team members are members of the task force. Rod Gurganus and Leah Chester-Davis, serve as co-chairs of the education, and networking and communications working groups, respectively.

N.C. Cooperative Extension is an educational outreach of N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University. It has programs in all 100 counties and the Cherokee Reservation.

Learn more at www.ces.ncsu.edu. The Program for Value-Added & Alternative Agriculture is located at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis. The multidisciplinary team builds partnerships and educational resources to help North Carolina agriculture be more profitable. The team works closely with N.C. Cooperative Extension personnel who work with farmers across the state. Learn more at www.ncvalueadded.org.

-- Leah Chester-Davis