A multistate research and outreach project designed to assist produce growers with reducing food safety risks from contaminated surface water is taking shape at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

UT water disinfection system
Chlorine, peroxyacetic acid and ultraviolet light water-disinfection methods being evaluated on strawberry plots at the University of Tennessee’s Plateau Research and Education Center west of Knoxville. (Photo by John Buchanan, courtesy of the UT Institute of Agriculture)

Besides helping to mitigate these risks, the project is also meant to help growers better understand and comply with requirements under the Food Safety Modernization Act’s Final Rule on Produce Safety, which established strict criteria for agricultural water quality and testing.

The first step will be developing training curriculum so produce growers will know how to implement appropriate water treatment systems on their farms.

The project is being funded through a $522,822 grant from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture Food Safety Outreach Program. NIFA announced more than $4.7 million in food safety education, training and technical assistance grants on Oct. 19.

Leading the project is Faith Critzer, Ph.D., a food safety specialist with UT Extension in Knoxville, along with colleagues Annette Wszelaki, Ph.D., a vegetable production specialist, and John Buchanan, Ph.D., a biosystems engineer. The trio will be joined by Extension specialists from New Mexico State University, North Carolina State University, the University of Florida and Virginia Tech.

“In our roles as Extension specialists, members of our team have received numerous questions and have had many discussions with growers who currently use surface water for irrigation or application of preventive sprays,” Critzer said.

Research at UGA campus located in Griffin, GA.
Faith Critzer

“The growers understand that surface water can become contaminated with microorganisms that can make people ill if consumed, also known as foodborne pathogens, and they do not want to rely upon monitoring via water testing, which only gives a snapshot of one period in time and may not detect intermittent problems that commonly arise with these water sources,” she added.

Once the training curriculum is developed, the Extension specialists plan to share it with other specialists, who will then train growers in their areas. The research team will also evaluate how well the curriculum and knowledge of the technology improves compliance with FSMA regulations.

“This curriculum, which will include hands-on demonstrations, should help growers understand the water quality standards and help them make educated decisions about how to use water treatment systems for this purpose and what systems may work best for their farms,” Critzer said.

She noted that the grant funding addresses a need specifically identified by produce growers, who are well aware of the food safety risks posed by runoff and from wild and domesticated animals.

“They want to be proactive in protecting the crops they are growing, and most importantly, to protect the consumers who will be eating the produce with their families,” Critzer said.

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