MOUNT VERNON, WA — They’re out there on the front lines waging a battle against dangerous pathogens that can contaminate your food and make you sick or even kill you. Yet most people don’t even think about them when they buy their food.

Who are these food-safety soldiers? None other than the farmworkers, the people who harvest and pack the fruits and vegetables you buy. Most people don’t see them simply because they’re often working far from towns, cities or major thoroughfares. Instead, they’re out in the fields or in the packing sheds in farm country. No wonder they’re often described as “an invisible workforce.”

But with the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011, agricultural employers realize that their farmworkers need to play an important role in preventing microscopic food pathogens, such as E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria, from contaminating crops.

Along with that, they’re also realizing that the workers need to be trained. Prevention is the name of the game simply because contaminated produce doesn’t look any different from good produce. It isn’t a matter of quickly spotting the problem and throwing the contaminated fruit or vegetables away.

This means, of course, that farmers not only need to provide food-safety training to workers but also provide what’s necessary for them to keep food safe from contamination.

With that in mind, Bri Ewing, a food-science educator, shared information about what’s required of growers during her presentation, “Worker Health, Hygiene and Training,” a module of the Produce Safety Alliance’s standard curriculum. Attending the all-day training course on Oct 16 at the Washington State University Research Center were about 30 growers from northwest Washington State.

The alliance is a collaboration between Cornell University, FDA, and USDA to prepare fresh produce growers to meet the regulatory requirements included in the United States Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule.

Training sessions based on the alliance’s standard curriculum will be held all across the nation. Go here for locations, dates and times.

The all-day training course is one way to satisfy the Food Safety Modernization Act’s Produce Safety Rule requirement that at least one supervisor or responsible party for a farm must have successfully completed food safety training at least equivalent to that received under standardized curriculum recognized as adequate by the Food and Drug Administration.

After attending the training course, participants will be eligible to receive a certificate from the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO) that verifies they have completed the training course.

The training course includes an overview of the Food Safety Modernization Act, along with modules on farmworkers, soil amendments, agricultural water, post-harvest handling, and sanitation.

Faith Critzer, one of the trainers and the Produce Safety Extension Specialist for Washington state,  said that the Produce Safety Rule was driven by widespread concern over continuing outbreaks of food poisoning caused by raw produce and the need to prevent them. Many of the outbreaks caused serious foodborne illnesses and hospitalizations, and in some cases, even deaths.

The rule establishes, for the first time, science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption.

For the most part, the rule covers produce that is eaten raw and therefore doesn’t go through a “kill step” such as cooking. It doesn’t cover produce that is rarely eaten raw.

Go here to see what produce is covered under the law and what produce isn’t covered.

Go here for information on compliance dates and timelines.

Why workers are key

Ewing explained that the workers are a food-safety concern because they can carry human pathogens such as E. coli and norovirus,. The pathogens can be spread to produce in various ways: through their feces from not washing their hands after using the bathroom, clothing, and footwear that has been contaminated with animal feces, tools and equipment, and illness and injury. They can also be spread through saliva and mucus, and in the case of injuries, through blood.

While human pathogens can be spread in many ways, the most common way is what is referred to as the fecal-oral route. An example of this would be if a farmworker didn’t wash his or her hands after using the toilet and then handled produce, which could contaminate it, thus putting the person eating the raw fruit or vegetable at risk.

Ewing advised growers to start out by identifying potential ways contamination can be caused by workers. From there they should decide on topics to include in a worker-training program. Next is to figure out how to monitor how the facilities, including bathrooms, are to be maintained on the farm. From there, figure out ways to correct any identified problems. And then come up with a plan to keep records on worker health and training.

In other words, have a plan that identifies possible problems and ways to correct them before they happen. And keep records about how to keep track of this.

Keeping records is important because the Produce Safety Rule requires a grower to establish and keep records of training that document required training of personnel, including the date of training, topics covered, and the persons(s) trained.

Farmworkers can be trained to play an important part in preventing foodborne pathogens from contaminating produce. For example, they can learn to identify problems, such as deer or bird droppings in a field, which can contaminate the crop with E. coli. They can also learn how to make sure they don’t cause any contamination. They can do that in a variety of ways, such as washing their hands after using the bathroom before returning to the field, keeping equipment clean, tending to cuts before continuing to harvest or pack food, making sure containers they put produce in are clean, and not coming to work when they’re sick.

But more than that, they can be trained to see possible problems before they happen. And that goes for everyone working at the farm, including the people in the office, said Ewing.

The more people you have looking out for problems, the better,” said Ewing. Owners, supervisors, and managers are especially important in this

“They need to set the example,” Ewing said, adding that when workers see the people in charge of taking basic prevention steps, they’ll be more likely to follow their example.

Farmers need to provide at least one fully serviced bathroom facility for every 20 workers within one-quarter of a mile. These must be well-stocked and serviced on a regular basis. There must also be hand-washing facilities available. Anti-bacterial hand cleaners aren’t a substitute for running water.

Single-use paper towels, which are then thrown away,  are required because anything used by more than one farmworker could spread contamination.

Workers need to take their breaks in an area that’s not in the field where crops are being harvested or about to be harvested.

Drinking water should be provided.

“When workers’ basic needs aren’t met, they’re not thinking about food safety,” said Ewing.

Food safety specialist Critzer agreed. “You have to take care of people as well as food safety,” she said.

What about sick workers?

Some farmworkers come to work even if they’re sick simply because they need to earn some money. But supervisors and other workers need to be watchful about this. If, for example, a worker is using the bathroom more than would be usual, that could be a sign that he’s having digestive problems such as diarrhea or vomiting. That’s a clear signal that he or she should be sent home since sick farmworkers can contaminate produce. They can also be contagious to other workers.

Excessive coughing and a runny nose can also be a sign that a worker shouldn’t be handling produce.

But as several farmers pointed out, this can be a sensitive topic. How do you go about bringing this up to a worker?

Ewing agreed but pointed out that having good communication with workers is very important. And just as important is that the workers feel comfortable bringing up topics such as this — and any other food-safety problems they might see — to the supervisor or owner.

As the Produce Safety Alliance’s curriculum says: Good communication is a two-way street, meaning everyone has a responsibility to share what they know and listen when others have information to share.”

What about paid sick leave?

In Washington state, employees — including farmworkers — who are covered by the state’s Minimum Wage Law are covered under the Washington Sick Leave Law, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2018.

The rate of pay for paid sick leave is the normal hourly rate. For piece rate workers, the hourly rate is determined by using the total earnings in the most recent workweek divided by the total hours worked in that workweek.

All employees (including seasonal) accrue 1 hour of paid sick leave for each 40- hours worked as an employee.
The employer must provide notification to employees of their entitlement to be paid sick leave, and this must be provided to an employee when he or she starts employment.

For more information, call wafla, a seasonal and ag employers HR association,  at (360) 455-8064.

California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, Vermont, and Arizona are among the other states with paid sick leave. Ag employers are advised to call their Departments of Labor and Industries to get details of those laws.

Workers need to know not just what to do or not to do, they also need to know why the main reason being that they don’t want people to get sick. Knowing that keeps them motivated to do the right thing. But it also goes beyond wanting to make sure people don’t get sick. It goes to what would happen if the farm they’re working on were to get shut down because of a food safety problem. This has happened to small and large farms alike. In other words, they need to know that their job depends on getting this right.

At the end of the presentation, Critzer pointed out that food safety and food quality go hand in hand together.

“At the end of the day, everyone needs to know that this benefits everyone,” she said.

Good step forward

Peter O’Driscoll, executive director of the Equitable Food Initiative said he’s encouraged to see the emphasis in the Produce Safety Alliance’s curriculum on the importance of training farmworkers.

“The module on Worker Health and Hygiene appropriately concludes that workers can be assets to the food safety plan if trained properly, or liabilities if not trained,” he said.

O’Driscoll noted that the curriculum also points out that workers are taking on additional responsibilities in implementing food safety protocols, and should, therefore, be incentivized.

“This concept is at the heart of EFI’s premium program, which encourages retailers to pay a modest price premium for EFI-certified produce that is returned to farmworkers in the form of a bonus,” said O’Driscoll.

He said he is hopeful that growers will take the Produce Safety Alliance curriculum’s recommendations and implement them in the context of a “broader commitment to building a culture of food safety and responsible labor practices.”

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