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On-farm food safety update

01.oct.03, Ben Chapman and Douglas Powell, The Grower, Food Safety Network

01.oct.03, Ben Chapman and Douglas Powell, The Grower, Food Safety Network
The phone rings. A buyer at the other end says that health officials have linked an outbreak of foodborne illness to a specific commodity -- your commodity -- and would you please provide documentation supporting the safety of your product. In the meantime, a public statement will be issued and sales will take a hit.
Ontario fresh fruit and vegetable producers have never been implicated as the source for an outbreak of foodborne illness. But that doesn't mean it hasn't happened; or that it could in the future. There have been 293 known produce-related outbreaks in North America since 1990, resulting in over 18,000 illnesses. There have been thousands of unknown outbreaks. And the level of public and buyer understanding has risen steadily since the mid-1990s.
The adoption of an on-farm food safety program can help producers reduce food safety risks and retain -- even expand -- market share, strengthening relationships with customers and consumers through proactively addressing risks and creating trust.
Sounds great, but who's going to design the paperwork? Who's going to help and provide evidence-based information? Who's going to pay?
Much has been made of the hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) system, an approach to controlling food safety risks; some have attempted to turn producers into HACCP experts. But for on-farm food safety systems, especially regarding horticultural crops, the terminology is routinely misused. HACCP is based on the control of critical points in food production: that control must be verifiable, and must be proven verifiable in research studies.
Because there is still little known about the mechanisms of how produce becomes contaminated on-farm, HACCP purists argue that it is almost impossible to define true critical control points in fresh fruit and vegetable production. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Growers, and the International Fresh-Cut Fruit association suggest that because critical control points are, at this point, unachievable, a true HACCP system is too rigid for the farm. A HACCP-based program that incorporates the principles of carrying out a risk assessment and establishing points of control where good agricultural practices are applied, has been shown to work in reducing risks on the farm.
The acronym is important only in debunking the HACCP hucksters. What is important is that any program be practical, credible and cost-effective. Producers must provide input during the creation and continual improvement of on-farm food safety guidelines. But even the best guidelines, usually published as manuals, have a tendency to gather dust. Guidelines must be accompanied by aggressive implementation, documentation, verification, incentives and, most importantly, support. Individual producers do not need to become food safety experts, but they do need to do the right thing. Good on-farm food safety programs have a mechanism to keep records of risk-reduction practices. The documentation provides a quick reference to specific practices for interested buyers or for regulators in the case of an outbreak. Marking down when equipment sanitation occurs, what chlorine levels are in wash water or when an employee is sick demonstrates that food safety is a priority. The documentation medium does not matter, whether it's a checklist that is posted on the wall, a computer spreadsheet or a notebook, as long as it is accessible, complete and is kept up to date. Verification provides a producer with a record of how well the on-farm food safety program is being implemented, can reveal potential areas of concern and, over time, can provide the data that demonstrates improvement. Verification can also be provided to a buyer to demonstrate that the program is accomplishing its goals. Audits can provide a snapshot of a producer's facilities and documentation but many auditors lack the microbiological or chemical testing capabilities or interest that can make a program more credible. By openly providing sample testing data to a buyer, it demonstrates that a producer has nothing to hide and that appropriate steps are effectively being taken to produce safe food.
Communication with employees is an integral part of an on-farm food safety program. Poor employee hygiene has been responsible for over 40 per cent of source identified produce-related outbreaks. Agricultural employees are on the frontlines of food safety, and providing program ownership to them by setting a good hygiene example, providing effective training and making available current food safety information shows employees that food safety is non-negotiable.
Food safety co-ordinators, either as employees or consultants to individual growers or producer groups, can best accomplish these tasks. Researchers have identified three types of barriers to successful implementation of HACCP -based programs: knowledge barriers - knowing about and understanding the program; attitudinal barriers - agreeing with the principles of the program and believing their actions will have and impact on food safety; and, behavioural barriers such as time, resources, money and staff. It is not enough to provide a set of guidelines from above and expect growers to comply with standards. Industry organizations and their producer members must be provided with on-going information, a dialogue of support that will promote the adoption of new practices. Recent research out of North Carolina State University has shown that producers prefer to have on-site visits when learning about production practices and will implement procedures correctly when shown it in terms specific to their site. On-farm food safety programs should not waste money by putting producers in classrooms; funds need to be invested into effective on-site visits. On-going research and continuous evaluation is required to not only better understand sources of and pathways of contamination, but to also, for example, determine the most-effective ways of communicating with employees (a sample handwashing video is available at www.foodsafety.ksu.edu/food/handw.htm), to develop more practical documentation, and to better integrate on-farm food safety programs, with nutrient management plans, spray records and environmental farm plans to create a farm-specific approach to produce production. (what article would be complete without researchers calling for more research, especially in their area of expertise). The voluntary approach such as in Environmental Farm Plans is a good model for on-farm food safety compliance; liability and market access concerns ensure that producers participate. Growers also need to know what their buyers want, closing the loop so that practical, cost-effective food safety programs are developed rather than cumbersome and ineffective requirements. A good on-farm food safety program needs a variety of components that alone are meaningless but together provide a picture that shows a producer is proactive about reducing risks. Say what you do; do what you say; verify that it works.

Ben Chapman is a graduate student and Douglas Powell scientific director with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph. They have developed, implemented and assessed on-farm food safety programs for over five years.