UMD Extension Faculty Help Implement a Food Safety Culture in Small and Medium Farms Across the U.S.

UMD Extension Faculty Help Implement a Food Safety Culture in Small and Medium Farms Across the U.S.

College Park, Md - While once optional and voluntary, best practices for how farm workers are trained under the Food Safety Modernization Act’s (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule are now required, establishing science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption ( Included in the compliance requirements is worker training and health and hygiene, an area in which UMD Extension faculty Dr. Shauna Henley and Dr. Angela Ferelli have noticed a gap between intention and reality as some farm managers aren’t implementing produce safety rules for their workers past basic health and hygiene training. In partnership with New Mexico State University, and University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Henley and Ferelli have been awarded funds by USDA-NIFA to provide small and medium sized farms that grow, harvest, pack and hold covered produce with training and tools to enhance and sustain an operational culture that champions food safety. Ultimately, their education-based materials will support workers to provide Americans access to a safe, nutritious, and secure food supply. 

Success for the project will be realized in several ways, including advancing a new Maryland food safety network focused on supporting food safety needs of producers, creation of a mixed-media toolkit for worker supervisors, and a subsequent Train-the-Trainer workshop designed to best utilize the toolkit. The toolkit will be piloted on farms over the course of a season, and ultimately evaluated for its effectiveness to change worker behavior. Henley and Ferelli also tout the importance of delivering resources that train to specific farm activities as opposed to general guidelines.

“What we have seen through some of our observations is that producers get to the first level, the basics like handwashing, but haven’t progressed further into the deeper training required in the FSMA Produce Safety Rule,” explains Henley. “There is a regulation in the produce safety rule that workers should be trained on specific duties. For example, if you have workers who are packing food, they should receive training specific to packing so they can understand and conduct risk assessments on the fly. If they see something, they should say something.”

Henley and Ferelli have identified additional specifics for how to best mitigate risk on the farm. They have identified three main barriers to delivery of produce safety rules as time, length of training, and web independence. “You can’t pack 30 people into a business office room to watch a video because there is a lack of broadband in some rural areas across the state,” says Ferelli. 

Food safety rules offer benefits that extend beyond health implications into the business side of the conversation for farms as well. 

“Food safety is good business and will open up new channels and opportunities. If you’re a small farmer and you want to expand and scale up, knowing the regulations will help your business grow,” explains Ferelli. “It’s also good for Maryland farms as a whole and for connectivity and networking. We really want to use this grant as an opportunity to strengthen the model to develop a Maryland Food Safety Network. This offers us a chance to formally organize,” says Henley. 

For farm managers and workers, the Food Safety Modernization Act can be confusing, and this team aims to reverse that perception through clear and concise educational materials such as visual presentations, posters, and gaming modules to name a few. 

“As we embark on this project, our goal is to further enhance the local, regional, and national food safety culture. We want to help businesses become more efficient, as well as create and increase positive attitudes towards food safety both on the farm and in the public eye,” says Ferelli.

This grant is funded by USDA-NIFA, Award # 2021-70020-35664

Original news story written by Graham Binder. Image Credit: Edwin Remsberg

November 1, 2021

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