DOAG: DOAG INSPECTION PROGRAM AIMS TO ENHANCE PRODUCE GROWERS ON-FARM FOOD SAFETY ACTIVITIES



July 10, 2019

DOAG INSPECTION PROGRAM AIMS TO ENHANCE PRODUCE GROWERS ON-FARM FOOD SAFETY ACTIVITIES

Mark Zotti, Bureau of Regulatory Services

 

With summer in full swing, consumers are busy visiting local farm stands and farmers markets in search of locally grown produce from the state’s hard-working farmers.  Every season comes with challenges and 2019 is no different.  Aside from the rain and cooler temperatures being a challenge at the start the season, some farmers throughout the state have also had to implement the provisions of recently enacted on-farm food safety laws. 

Fresh fruits and vegetables are a staple for all healthy diets.  Consumers seek produce at farm stands, farmers markets and supermarkets throughout the state. They want local products and expect local products to be safe. To minimize risk of microbial contamination, the Produce Safety Rule (PSR) of the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) implemented science based standards for the growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of fresh fruits and vegetables intended for human consumption. 

The Connecticut Department of Agriculture (DoAg) has developed the state’s first registration and inspection program for Connecticut produce farms. This activity is a direct result of the PSR—one of seven major rules of FSMA. 

FSMA has made a fundamental change to food safety regulations that can substantially affect how fruit and vegetable farms operate in 2019 and beyond, transforming the nation’s food safety system by shifting the focus from responding to foodborne illness to preventing it.  

DoAg recognized the significance of this legislation many years ago and has developed a strategy to ensure the adaptation by the industry in Connecticut and assist in mitigating potential negative effects of these new laws. 

With a focus on ensuring a knowledgeable and educated industry, DoAg believes this will provide the foundation for long term success.  DoAg is actively sharing its efforts and vision with farmers, produce buyers, and public health partners.  Collaboration among these groups is key to the understanding and integration of these new laws to ensure the viability of fruit and vegetable growers.

DoAg was authorized to adopt the PSR in 2017 pursuant to Public Act No. 17-208 (C.G.S. Sec. 22-39g) and is developing regulations to further specify how the program will operate. 

With a cooperative agreement in place with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, DoAg has leveraged federal funding to develop its program, expand food safety education opportunities with UConn Extension, and prepare the state’s industry for a produce safety inspection program. 

This program will be amended as the federal rule provides clarification and as the state’s proposed regulations are finalized.

The PSR requires produce farms to be inspected in accordance with the following inspection schedule, based on average income, beginning in 2019:

  • More than $500,000 in produce sales: 2019

  • $250,000 - $500,000 in produce sales: 2020

  • $25,000 - $250,000 in produce sales: 2021

All fruit and vegetable growers that sell over $25,000 in produce are covered by the PSR.  These farms need to register with the DoAg annually.  Registered farms will receive a registration card from DoAg.

There are modified requirements for growers that claim a qualified exemption from the PSR.  This exemption is in place for farms with less than $500,000 in total food sales that sell the majority of their produce directly to a qualified end users (restaurants, grocery stores, schools, etc.). These farms are required to submit a declaration to DoAg which will allow them to avoid routine compliance (inspections) activities. 

Farms with less than $25,000 in produce sales are not required to register or be inspected. These farms are encouraged to submit a declaration to avoid routine compliance activities. All farms regardless of size are subject to for-cause inspections such as outbreak and complaint investigations.

A significant driver of on-farm food safety programs is the produce buying community.  Beginning over a decade ago, produce buyers began asking their farms to participate in Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) Audits to verify on-farm food safety activities aimed at reducing the risk of microbial contamination.  

Over the past decade, the produce growing community has seen an increase in requests from produce buyers for GAP audits to gain market access.  Prior to the adoption of the PSR, DoAg offered USDA GAP audits.  This service has been discontinued in 2019 and replaced with a state specific GAP program called the Connecticut Good Agricultural Practices (CGAP) on-farm food safety program. 

CGAP is founded on the PSR with common GAP principles incorporated to support the program.  This program is similar to the Massachusetts Commonwealth Quality Program that has provided a state specific audit to Massachusetts’ growers for many years and has also adopted the PSR provisions. 

CGAP is open to all Connecticut produce growers regardless of sales.  It focuses on the documents, records and training each farm provides in an effort to enhance the food safety culture and reduce the risk of microbial contamination on their farm. 

Work on this program has been done in collaboration with other New England states with an overall goal to align each state program.  Several produce buyers have expressed interest and support for this initiative. 

DoAg is encouraged by a shared vision from farmers, buyers, and regulators to enhance on-farm food safety and ensure access to markets for the state’s industry.

To best serve fruit and vegetable growers throughout the state, DoAg Marketing & Inspection Representatives are assigned to specific regions throughout the state.

These representatives serve as the primary point of contact for farmers, produce buyers, and local health officials for produce safety related questions and perform functions including PSR inspections and CGAP reviews.

On-farm food safety educational opportunities for farmers are provided by UConn Extension.  Such opportunities include the Produce Safety Alliance Grower Training Course.

For more information regarding UConn Extension and the food safety programs offered, visit www.foodsafety.uconn.edu. 

Connecticut’s fruit and vegetable inspection program is still in its infancy.  A website dedicated to providing the most up to date information is currently under development and is available at www.ctgrown.gov/producesafety. All those with questions can email ProduceSafety@ct.gov, or call 860-713-2522.