by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Growing food that’s safe to eat should be the priority of every produce farmer. Laura Biasillo, agricultural economic development specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension Broome County, presented “Produce Safety: How We Got Here and Why It Matters” as part of a recent two-day GAPs workshop.

“Eighty-five to 90% of it you are already doing,” she said to the attendees, most of whom stated they own or manage small produce operations. “But you’ve just not documented it. GAPs is all about documentation. This is a good time of year to do this because you’ll have three or so weeks before things will get hot and heavy in the greenhouse. It’s not what you think is good or what your neighbor is doing but what works on your farm.”

While GAPs has certain guidelines, how these are carried out sometimes has some leeway. Outbreaks of illness because of lapses in food safety affect buyer perspective, regulatory perspective and economic impact.

Biasillo said that for the past three to five years, food safety has been widely reported as an issue because of recalls on items such as romaine lettuce. Food-borne illnesses have always happened; however, more people are eating fresh produce because of greater education on its benefits and, thanks to year-round access, increased availability. Food-borne illnesses have also increased because aging Baby Boomers are more susceptible, as are those who are immune-compromised for a variety of health reasons. Biasillo said the desire for fresh-cut convenience foods also contributes to the issue.

“The more steps it goes through, the greater potential for contamination,” Biasillo said.

Even if farmers work hard to keep their products clean from seed to harvest, the packing house may contaminate it and tarnish the reputation of the source farm.

She added that microorganisms mutate in a way similar to the common cold, which makes them tricky to combat. “We have to find more ways to fight it the more it adapts,” Biasillo said.

Even though romaine lettuce and other identified sources of food-borne illness outbreaks may grab big headlines, Biasillo said that eggs (45.4%) and seafood (21.6%) are responsible for more food-borne illness outbreaks than produce (15.6%). Sprouts (6%), processed foods (6.8%) and dairy (4.6%) comprise the remaining causes.

Among produce items, sprouts lead the outbreaks at 24%, followed by leafy greens (20%).

“It’s not anything that’s surprising, but one we should pay attention to is sprouts,” Biasillo said. “They’re hard to clean.”

Biasillo said when buyers ask “Do you do GAPs?” what they really want to know is if you have a written food safety plan and records. This should include third-party audits of farms. Since this is time-consuming, Biasillo said that designating a person on the farm for food safety can help make it easier.

“The worst case scenario is multiple audits from multiple buyers with different food safety standards,” Biasillo said. “Let’s say the buyer doesn’t require GAPs but the marketplace expects it is safe. Just because you may not have to go through a GAPs course doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have food safety.”

Some people hold the misconception that large farms cause outbreaks; however, “large farms get the publicity,” Biasillo said. They also tend to ship food in a fashion that’s traceable to their operation.

She said food safety starts with using the proper methods to avoid contamination from humans, soil, soil amendments, water and animals.

Fresh produce food safety challenges include “a low level of sporadic contamination on a variety of crops,” Biasillo said. “It’s because produce is often eaten uncooked, a ready-to-eat food. Prevention is the key to reducing microbial contamination of fresh fruits and vegetables.”

While many growers may not be scientists, Biasillo believes that a basic understanding of microbiology can go a long way toward reducing the risk of causing a food-borne illness outbreak.

A farmer might think that since no one has become sick so far that their practices should be fine; however, Biasillo said it’s far better to know one is using the right practices. “You need to make changes in farming practices by assessing those impacts first,” she said.

Food safety measures should protect the health and safety of customers and consumers, protect the financial interest of the farm, keep up with industry mandates and federal regulations and increase the potential for post-harvest quality gains. Some buyers pay a premium for produce grown under safety guidelines.

“Farming is always progressive,” Biasillo said. “Nothing ever stays the same. Everything indicates food safety requirements are here to stay. Consider the benefits of adopting food safety practices and developing a plan. Utilizing the resources that any of us educators can provide for you and take advantage of assistance.”