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Food Safety Wins Thumbs-Up in 2012 Specialty Crop Grants

It’s a green light for food safety from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 specialty crop grants, with 8.4 percent of the total number of grants going to food safety projects – among them research, education, training and initiatives. The focus of many of these grants is directed toward smaller-scale farms.

Specialty crops are defined by the USDA as fruits, vegetables, tree nuts and other nutritious foods such as herbs and mushrooms, as well as nursery and horticultural crops.

Although the percentage of this year’s food-safety awards is a little smaller than the percentage focused on food safety last year (8.8 percent), it’s almost double those focused on food safety in 2010 (4.48 percent).

The total amount of all of the recently awarded grants adds up to $101 million. Marketing and promotion grants account for the largest share — 30 percent — of the projects.

In a press release announcing the grants awarded to California, Karen Ross, secretary of the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture, praised the block grant program as “a wise investment in making our crops safer, more competitive and more accessible.”

According to 2011 estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of foodborne illness.

In its rundown of the foods that can cause foodborne illnesses, CDC says that although raw foods of animal origin are the most likely to be contaminated, “fruits and vegetables consumed raw are of particular concern.”

Farmers in all 50 states produce specialty crops. For a state-by-state rundown of which crops are grown in which state and how previous specialty crops grants have helped farmers and consumers in that state, go to United Fresh’s recently compiled Fruit and Vegetable State Profiles. The profiles also detail the impact of adult and childhood obesity and diabetes in each state.

Prevention Is the Name of the Game

A quick glance at the description of the food safety grants awarded in this latest round of specialty crop grants reveals that just about every state won funding to help farmers establish the set of food safety standards for growers known as Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Good Handling Practices (GHPs).

In most cases, providing a bridge to help farmers achieve GAPs or GHPs certification is the main goal. This can include workshops, educational material, farm tours and mock audits and even the use of new electronic devices. In some cases, there’s a cost share to the farmers, important because many small-scale farmers can’t afford the initial expense of becoming GAPs certified.

Topics include using safe pre-harvest and post-harvest practices, preventing wildlife contamination, testing out new antimicrobial washes or treatments and even help for farmers selling at farmers markets and for students growing school gardens.

The name of the game is prevention, which is in line with the overriding goal of the new Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law early last year.

Spending by Agricultural Marketing Service on Specialty Crop Grants for Fiscal Year 2012 (dollar amounts in thousands)

The ‘Skinny’ on the Grants

In announcing the grants, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release that the “investments will support local and regional markets, and improve access to healthy food for millions of children and supply thousands of farmers markets, restaurants and other businesses with fresh, high-quality fruits and vegetables.”

On the health front, adult and childhood obesity and diabetes are of special concern. Some nutritionists point to a diet of highly processed food containing too much fat and sugar as one of the main culprits.

The irony in all of this is the USDA’s spending priorities; the amount spent on each crop doesn’t align with its market value. According to the Environmental Working Group, from 2008-2010, the Farm Bill spent $39.4 billion (more than eight times the amount it spent on specialty crops) on a handful of commodity crops such as corn, rice, soybeans, cotton and wheat, even though their market value – $320 billion – was only twice that of fruits, nuts and vegetables.

Specialty crop growers say they don’t want subsidies but that they do want some funding that will help them improve their farming operations, help them promote their crops and keep them competitive.

Marketing and Food Safety – ‘Can’t Have One Without the Other’

This year, marketing and promotion won 30 percent of the specialty crop grant pie. That large slice represents USDA’s push for people to improve their health by eating more fresh fruits and vegetables. As an important part of that, some of the marketing projects are directed towards encouraging consumers to seek out locally, regionally or state-grown fruits and vegetables and nuts.

The link between food safety and marketing of specialty crops is a strong one. But if so many of the grants are directed toward encouraging people to eat more fruits and vegetables, food safety has to be part of the equation.

Foodborne pathogen outbreaks and recalls linked to fresh produce over the past few years drive that point home. Cantaloupes, lettuce, mangoes and strawberries are just some examples of fruits and vegetables that have been liked to recent outbreaks.

Cantaloupes stand out in the roll call. Last year, Listeria-contaminated cantaloupes from a farm in Colorado sickened more than 140 people and killed 33. This year, Salmonella-contaminated cantaloupes from a farm in Indiana killed 2 people and sickened more than 175 in 21 states. Not surprisingly, some of the food safety grants in this recent round go towards preventing cantaloupes from being contaminated by foodborne pathogens.

David Gombas, food safety expert with United Fresh, said in an e-mail to Food Safety News that while many in the produce industry have been busy developing “best practices” for commodities and regions, getting these safety messages out to smaller growers and handlers, as well as to consumers, has been a challenge. That’s why he thinks the sort of activities described in the specialty crop grants should be undertaken at the state level.

“It’s important that states and fruit and vegetable groups within the states are putting more emphasis on food safety since they are the ones submitting proposals to USDA,” he said.

He likes that the states are partnering with organizations to get the word out and improve consumption of safe fresh fruits and vegetables, something that he says the “country desperately needs to improve public health.”

He also likes that the grants are annual, allowing states the flexibility to quickly focus on needs that address specific issues versus spending years of research and bureaucracy addressing an issue.

“That is a strong value of these grants,” he said.

Trevor Suslow, a food safety expert at University of California at Davis, told Food Safety News that anyone looking at the need for “proactive” food-safety research and Extension training for food producers, handlers and consumers “would like to see a greater allocation (for food safety) relative to marketing campaigns.”

“But we are grateful that the program does include food safety research and education objectives,” he said.

He also pointed out that food safety is critical to stabilizing the marketing of key crops.

Many in the produce industry have similar thoughts, saying that a food poisoning outbreak linked to one specialty crop ripples through that crop’s entire industry. The initial result is that consumers avoid buying that specific fruit or vegetable, no matter where it was produced. When that happens, farmers have to plow under their crop or leave it unharvested, workers are laid off and livelihoods are lost or threatened.

The Dilemma

The dilemma, of course, is that fresh produce that isn’t cooked doesn’t go through a “kill step” for pathogens such as E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella that might be on or in the produce. Pathogens such as this can cause a range of health problems, among them diahrrea, stomach upsets, kidney failure and even death.

Any pathogens that might be on the produce when it’s purchased will be lying in wait to infect the unsuspecting consumer. Even pathogens on the surface of fruits whose exterior isn’t eaten – such as cantaloupes – can get onto the meat of the fruit via the knife when it’s cut, or can contaminate surfaces or the hands of the person preparing it.

In the case of leaf lettuce and other cut greens, pathogens can stick so tightly to the nutrients oozing out of where the greens and lettuce leaves were cut that they can’t be washed off. And in the case of nicked or gashed fruits, any pathogens on the surface of the fruit can travel into the interior of the produce, where they have plenty of food to thrive on and where they get busy reproducing millions of potentially harmful or deadly offspring.

Sounds scary, doesn’t it? But none of this happens if the produce is free of pathogens. Unless, of course, it comes into contact with already contaminated food or surfaces, or with people who haven’t followed proper sanitation practices such as washing their hands well enough.

That’s why keeping produce free of pathogens is so important. And it’s why farmers and processors and handlers are urged to follow good agricultural practices (GAPs) and good handling practices (GHPs), which need to be built into a farm’s entire system from start to finish — the soil, irrigation and cleaning water, equipment, farmworker hygiene, record-keeping, packaging, storing, transporting and keeping produce at the proper temperatures from harvest to delivery, among others.

And while following GAPs doesn’t absolutely guarantee that the food will be free of pathogens, it does offer the assurance that the best practices for eliminating contamination were followed in producing and handling the food.

But farmers across the nation have said that becoming GAPs certified is a huge challenge, especially for smaller-scale growers. That’s where many of the food safety grants come into the picture.

Maine: A Good Example

A good example of what the food safety grants seek to achieve is a grant that went to Maine this year. The state’s Agriculture Department will partner with AgMatters, LLC to help specialty crop growers as they prepare for various food safety certifications for their produce operations. The grant description notes that the grant is based on “heightened awareness of the need for certification that food is reaching markets safely.”

In an interview with Food Safety News, Linda B. Titus, who coordinates AgMatter’s advisory program for GAP/GHP assistance to farmers – preparing them for GAPs certification – said that the farmers she works with are keenly aware that they have to meet food safety standards if they are to maintain or expand their markets.

“It isn’t the government pushing it,” she said, referring to GAPs certification. “It’s mainly their markets.”

Primarily a rural state, Maine’s farms – except for its potato and wild blueberry operations – are for the most part small operations. With more and more interest in buying locally grown foods, Titus says farmers know that they have to take GAPs and GHPs seriously if they want to benefit from this trend.

There’s also a heightened awareness about food safety among farmers looking for new markets in places like schools and nursing homes, Titus says, pointing out that both of these buyers serve vulnerable populations — young children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

Five years ago when she started working with farmers on GAPs and GHPs, she ran into a wall of resistance.

“Many farmers do what they do because that’s the way they’ve always done it,” she said. But times have changed, and with their search for new or expanded markets, farmers have changed their attitudes about food safety as well.

“There’s been a huge difference,” she said. “In the beginning, the farmers didn’t know who to be mad at.”

But AgMatters kept telling them that they didn’t have to adopt food safety standards, but that Hannaford, a large supermarket chain with almost 100 stores across Maine, wanted farms they bought from to comply with GAPs. And since Hannaford represents one of the best opportunities for expanding their markets, the farmers took note.

“The nice thing about the food safety movement is that it has people taking a step back and looking at it as something they need to know more about,” Titus says.

AgMatters has streamlined the process of becoming GAPs certified, creating a one-page form for record keeping for once-a-week entries. It also shows farmers that the program can be flexible based on their own particular circumstances and needs. It’s not a one-size-fits-all set of requirements.

Titus said that just touring a farm and giving it an overview isn’t enough to determine whether food safety practices are being followed there.

“It’s the little things the farmers do,” she said, referring to such things is how farms clean their containers and what sorts of facilities and training they provide to farmworkers.

AgMatters starts off by sitting down with the growers. In a few hours they know what they need to do, says Titus.

“They always tell us that if we didn’t do this, they would never be able to do it in their own,” she says.

As for audits, which look at whether the necessary food safety standards are being followed, some of them can be “surprise audits.”

“This (food safety on the farm) is a way of life,” Titus said. “It’s not just so you can pass an audit. It makes very positive changes on every farm. The farmers know they’re doing things right. They take pride in that. And their farms look better for it.”

Bottom line, she says, it comes down to profitability for a farm and therefore the livelihood of the farmers and the health of the state’s agricultural economy.

When looking ahead, Titus says she’d like to see grocery stores promote food safety awareness for consumers.

“I think it’s a priority,” she said, lamenting that consumers for the most part are unaware of basic food safety principles. “It’s very sad what people don’t know.”

© Food Safety News