If you think you’re got problems, try being a farmer. They’re faced with an impressive array of enemies that are waging war on their crops and their livelihoods. These adversaries don’t need sophisticated weapons. They’ve got something more deadly — an arsenal of biological ammunition. And for the most part, they’re small, very small, oftentimes microscopic.

To view a larger version of this graphic, please click on the image. Source: USDA

Whether they be the brown marmorated stink bug, a voracious eater that damages fruits and vegetables; the diamondback moth that feeds on cole crops; the Pacific tree frog that likes to munch on leafy greens; silk flies that are fond of sweet corn; the sweet potato white fly, the most destructive insect of sweet potatoes in the world; or all sorts of molds, fungi and powdery mildews that descend on crops, these critters take their toll on farmers’ bottom lines.

And that’s not to mention the microscopic foodborne pathogens such as E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella, which don’t harm the crops, themselves, but can sicken people who eat fruits or vegetables, or even kill them. Such pathogens are frequently what cause foods to be recalled. For farmers, this can lead to lost sales and reputations, and even the loss of their farms.

Taking all of this, and more, into account, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service has awarded more than $60 million in Specialty Crop Block Grants to fund 678 projects.

The USDA defines specialty crops as “fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture.”

Sonia Jimenez, deputy administrator of AMS Special Crops Program, said some of these grants will fund projects designed to enhance food safety by helping specialty crop farmers and other businesses in the crop distribution chain comply with the requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act.

“In addition,” she said, “we encourage farmers to become certified in good agricultural practices, known as GAPs. This certification adds value for specialty crop farmers because, with certification, buyers and handlers of these crops can be confident that the farm has met USDA’s GAP requirements, which are now aligned with the Food and Drug Administration’s Produce Safety Rule.”

Jimenez said in 2016, the Specialty Crop Program launched Group GAP so small farmers and cooperatives could work together to share the costs and benefits of GAP certification by completing the process as a group.

The success of that effort can be measured by the 310 farms that have received Group GAP certification.

About specialty crops
While about a million farmers and landowners who grow a handful of major crops, including corn, soybeans, rice, and cotton, receive about $25 billion in subsidies from the federal government. Specialty crops farmers receive no such subsidies. And while the subsidized farmers are typically large producers, specialty crop growers can range from very small to very large.

With that funding inequity in mind, many farmers, consumers and legislators joined together and called on Congress to come up with something that would help the specialty crop farmers.

The farmers made it clear that they weren’t asking for subsidies. Instead, they wanted the opportunity to apply for grants that would help them with things like technical assistance, food-safety training, research and marketing. They said this sort of assistance would help them be more efficient, productive and profitable.

In 2004, with a strong push from constituents, Congress passed the Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act.

The act takes aim at “ensuring an abundant and affordable supply of highly nutritious fruits, vegetables, and other specialty crops for American consumers and international markets.”

To do this, changes were made to federal agriculture policy, and the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program became an important part of this change. The program helps state departments of agriculture in the 50 states, America Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands enhance the competitiveness of U.S. grown specialty crops.

Family farms such as this fruit and vegetable operation in Kentucky are often the largest beneficiaries of the overall work done with USDA Specialty Crop Block Grants.

Food safety grants
Many of the Specialty Crop Block Grants are directed toward teaching farmers about the requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), as well as teaching them how to comply. 

The act, which was signed into law in 2011, focuses on how to prevent food from becoming contaminated with foodborne pathogens such as E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella. That differs from past food-safety laws, which were focused more on dealing with contaminated food after people got sick.

While almost all produce growers and processors must abide by the rules, very small-scale growers don’t have to. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be sued should any of their produce make people ill. It’s for that reason that abiding by the rules is important for all specialty crop growers and processors. But more than that, it’s important because the overall goal is to keep food safe, which ultimately benefits consumers.

While food safety grants make up just some of the many grants awarded to fund the 678 projects, they are an important part of the overall effort.

Here are some examples of this type of recently awarded grants:

This project will develop a three-hour workshop for preparing farmers to productively complete the Cornell University Produce Safety Alliance (PSA) Grower Training Course, which is based on the FSMA requirements.

The target audiences are the small, limited resource, underrepresented minority, and military veteran specialty crop farmer communities in Alabama and surrounding states. Those farmers who successfully complete the workshop will be assisted in obtaining the materials for the PSA Grower Training Course.

Also, in support of developing and implementing the course, an online question and answer database will be created with input from the farmers in the preparatory workshops as their needs are addressed.

In addition, a series of fact sheets on various food safety topics will be developed and placed online for print-on-demand. As part of the project, three people will be able to apply to become PSA Lead Trainers and the staff who have completed the PSA Train-the-Trainer Course will be increased from six to 10. The expanded staff of trainers will make it possible to offer more workshops with a goal of of having 100 of the targeted farmers complete the PSA Grower Training Course.

Brown marmorated stink bug

During the past few years, federal and state agencies have sought to minimize the risks of foodborne illnesses associated with produce. In 2002, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Services (AMS) developed the Good Agricultural Practices/Good Handling Practices (GAP/GHP) audit program. In 2011 the harmonized audit concept was introduced. 

Many distributors, supermarkets and cooperatives now require third-party food safety certification from produce growers and packers before they agree to purchase their products.

The proposed initiative would provide direct assistance to Massachusetts Specialty Crop Growers by reimbursing the costs associated with the GAP/GHP or harmonized audits. In order to maintain access to their wholesale and market channels, these growers must be audited every year, which is a costly endeavor for the grower. The audits cost about $92 per hour and a typical audit lasts nine hours with travel, audit time and data entry. The proposed initiative would lessen the financial burden of the grower and would allow these farms to continue to access those channels.

Additionally, there are still growers in Massachusetts who are not currently enrolled in a third-party certification program, but will be required to if they want to continue selling to certain supermarkets and distributors. As part of the initiative, the state will work to ensure these growers are aware of the education and resources available to them. The cost-share program will allow them to maintain access to various markets and increase the competitiveness of specialty crops in Massachusetts.

North Carolina
Personnel from the Institute for Food Safety at Cornell University will develop educational materials and extension trainings to assist specialty crop growers in better understanding sanitary design and implementing sanitation procedures to reduce microbial and chemical food safety risks on farms and in packinghouses.

Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD) and its partners at the Virginia Cooperative Extension and AgCon will enhance the competitiveness of fresh fruits and vegetables by providing training and one-on-one technical assistance to specialty crop farmers across Virginia in support of obtaining the food safety certification they need to access scale appropriate markets. 

Two hundred produce farmers will be prepared to obtain USDA Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Harmonized GAP with Global Addendum certification and will be prepared for Global GAP should the markets make such a change necessary.

Additionally, ASD will work with its partners to enhance and incorporate FSMA’s Produce Safety Rule requirements, including providing FSMA training by qualified lead trainers, establishing clear interpretations for which farmers will need to comply with these rules and when, and developing and delivering appropriate recordkeeping processes and tools. Eighty farmers will receive certifications in USDA GAP, harmonized, harmonized with the global addendum, and other programs and entities.

Water quality questions and answers
Coming up with water-quality standards, for before, during and after harvest, has been a challenge. In fact, the FDA recently proposed extending initial compliance dates for the agricultural water requirements included in the agency’s new produce safety rule by an additional two years.

When he was FDA deputy administrator for foods, Mike Taylor, right, traveled the country, meeting with produce growers and packers to discuss the produce rule and its water testing and quality provisions. Here he checks out the irrigation system used in an onion-growing opreation in the Pacific Northwest.

The produce rule is one of seven mandated by the FSMA and created by FDA. It is the most concerning of the rules for many farmers. If the extension is enacted — the rule is open for public comment — that would give farmers at least four more years until they have to comply with the water testing and quality standards.

“Food safety risks associated with water are especially important for specialty crops, such as produce that is consumed raw,” said Don Stoeckel, an environmental microbiologist who has collaborated with the Cornell National Good Agricultural Practices Program for nearly a decade on water quality issues related to food safety.

“Without processes like cooking that kill pathogenic microorganisms, prevention of contamination by all inputs, including water, is critical.”

When looking at this issue from a farmer’s perspective, Stoeckel said along with its benefits for produce production and quality, water use on the farm is also a cost to the farm business in terms of dollars, time spent, maintaining water sources/availability, and risks to produce safety. Many farms rely on water in their operations, so clarity about rules affecting water use is important.

In the end, a lot of this actually has to do with the consumer.

“The educational awards are one way to get the information into the heads, and hands, of farmers where it can be put into practice to make the produce we eat even more safe — and consistently safe — than it already is,” said Stoeckel.

Several of the Specialty Crop Block Grants target water use and food safety. Here are some examples.

The LSU Agricultural Center has designed and built a chilling system featuring an antimicrobial sprayer for reducing pathogenic loads on the surface of fresh produce and the rapid initiation of the cold chain.

Produce can be contaminated from pathogenic bacteria in irrigation water and from wildlife. These pathogenic bacteria are harvested with the produce and, particularly for produce consumed raw, transferred to the consumer.

The producer is required by FSMA  to address these food safety concerns.

This spray system is intended to be used immediately or shortly after harvesting. The proposed study is to determine and validate the effectiveness of the system in reducing Listeria and E. coli levels on the surface of cantaloupe.

Non-pathogenic bacteria, L. innocua B-33016 and E. coli ATTC 25922, will be used as surrogates to validate the system. The study will involve spraying spray peroxyacetic acid (PA), an antimicrobial agent, in an actual farming environment to test the system’s effectiveness. PA is water soluble, and is commonly used to wash fruits and vegetables to reduce pathogenic bacteria.

The proposed system can spray the chilled antimicrobial agents, wash, and cool the produce in one operation. This should be more efficient from a production standpoint, and is expected to be more effective in reducing pathogen loads compared to washing only. Advantages include no contamination of wash water, rapid and early chilling and a potential for reduced cost. Both quality and safety are expected to be enhanced.

The Center for Produce Safety in California will partner with the University of Florida to evaluate the application of chitosan microparticles to sanitize agricultural water.

Chitosan is derived from chitin, which is abundant in crustacean shells and is a natural by-product of shellfish processing.

Water used for irrigation or processing of produce has been implicated as a source of pathogen contamination that can persist in aquatic systems. Therefore, irrigation water derived from surface water sources or flumes of wash water are often sanitized with disinfectants such as sodium hypochlorite, chlorine dioxide and peroxyacetic acid.

However, these treatments are only marginally effective and have potential toxicity. Thus, development of novel water treatment methods is needed. This research project will examine the application of chitosan microparticles as a possible pre-harvest treatment in irrigation water and/or as a post-harvest treatment in produce wash water.

The potential of chitosan as a sanitizer is that it offers an economical, biodegradable, and non-toxic alternative to toxic chemicals and that it does not promote resistance to antibiotics.

Chitosan is “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, in other food applications, ensuring a high likelihood of acceptance for agricultural water applications.

Studies will focus on reducing Salmonella and norovirus in natural water sources and on produce, and the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of practical applications will be assessed.

The food safety research group at Southern Illinois University will identify safe handling practices for salad greens, cherry tomatoes and melons, and scientifically develop produce washing and handling practices to improve microbial safety and shelf life. The knowledge obtained from project activities will be disseminated to the specialty crop growers through an on-farm workshop, printed media at farmers markets, and online media at SIU and various social media of growers.

The University of Illinois will investigate the impact of alternate water sources including tile water, rainwater, and treated wastewater, on crop quality, soil quality, and potential contamination for specialty tomatoes and herb production in Illinois and disseminate results to stakeholders through grower meetings and field days.

North Carolina
The North Carolina Department of Agriculture will reimburse growers up to $1,000 for analysis of water used in growing, harvesting or packaging for the purposes of becoming certified in Good Agricultural Practices through a third-party audit and in preparation of upcoming FSMA enforcement. The FSMA requires

growers to develop a baseline over a four-year period.

This program will assist the growers in deferring the cost of these new rules and in maintaining on‐farm safety certifications.

Virginia Tech will attempt to reduce foodborne pathogen contamination in specialty crops by evaluating the risk of pathogen infiltration into susceptible commodities during submersion in water. These findings will directly support the Virginia specialty crop industries including apple, peach, cucumber, cantaloupe and tomato operations in compliance with the produce rule and implementation of feasible science-based interventions to prevent contamination events during post-harvest handling activities.

Results will be communicated to stakeholders through Produce Safety Alliance Grower Trainings throughout Virginia, which is currently the only FDA-approved course for training requirements, and extension forums including Virginia’s Annual Tree Fruit School, grower association meetings, and Virginia Cooperative Extension fact sheets.

Pathogens may infiltrate into the fruit core and inner tissues when warm fruit from the field is submerged in colder water. The project aims to evaluate the risk of Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes infiltration into susceptible specialty crops with ambient (21C and refrigeration, 4C ) temperatures submerged into water at various temperature differentials, simulating common post-harvest practices.

Historically, to prevent pathogen infiltration into fruit during submersion in water, it was recommended that operations achieve a 10 C differential between fruit and post-harvest water. However, recent data showed that decreasing submersion time in water was more effective at reducing pathogen infiltration than reducing temperature differential.

Currently, several specialty crops are submerged in water during post-harvest handling to increase quality and visual aesthetics, thus this proposed research has important food safety implications, as well as safe harbors for produce rule compliance.

When the Agricultural Marketing Service is ready to accept applications for Fiscal Year 2018 Specialty Crop Block Grants, the information will be posted on the AMS website.

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