Angela Shaw, left, associate professor of food science and human nutrition, and her team have spent the past three years developing and conducting trainings designed for fruit and vegetable growers. The trainings aim to help growers learn how they can improve their practices to prevent foodborne illnesses. (Courtesy of ISU)

Nearly half – 46 percent – of the nation’s foodborne illness outbreaks are linked to eating fruits, vegetables or nuts.

An Iowa State University team of researchers and Extension and Outreach professionals are working with Midwest fruit and vegetable growers to reduce that percentage.

For the past three years, Angela Shaw, associate professor of food science and human nutrition and Extension specialist, has led a team that has been working to help fruit and vegetable growers and food processors throughout the Midwest improve practices to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks.

The work is done as part of the North Central Region Center (NCR) for Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Training, Extension, and Technical Assistance. The NCR is one of four regional centers in the United States that organize Produce Safety Alliance Grower Training for produce growers as part of FSMA. Funding for the trainings has come from three different grants totaling more than $3 million.

Trainings proving successful

Throughout the year, Shaw’s staff organize and conduct monthly meetings with state leads and Extension partners to teach them how to train growers within the region. Any grower who has more than $25,000 in annual produce sales must go through the required Produce Safety Alliance Grower Training once.

The success of the trainings is determined through surveys distributed to participants at the end of the year. Results from the most recent survey conducted for 2017-2018 trainings showed 73 percent of growers reported implementing or strengthening a food safety practice as a result of the Produce Safety Alliance Grower Training. The most common implemented practices included establishing a farm food safety plan, ensuring food contact surfaces are clean and having employees undergo training on food safety and hygiene protocols.

Aiding in the success of the trainings are fact sheets and check lists provided to the growers, showing proper steps to follow when growing and handling fruits and vegetables.

Billy Mitchell, regional FSMA training coordinator, often hands out record-keeping envelopes to growers that include information about steps they can take to improve their practices. He said growers have found these envelopes beneficial.

“The NCR record-keeping envelope empowers the producers to determine where they fall under the rule and begin to document that they comply with the requirements to meet an exemption,” Mitchell said. “The rules can be puzzling and overwhelming, so providing a piece of the record-keeping puzzle to work on can offer a sense of relief for the producers.”

Tracking, preventing food contamination

Shaw said one in six people each year will become sick due to foods they eat. Thanks to improved technology, it is easier to detect harmful cells in food that may cause those foodborne illnesses.

“If we can identify why people are getting sick, we can get the affected products off the shelf faster,” Shaw said.

While the training surveys allow Shaw and her team to see how many growers are implementing improved practices on their farms, the exact impact on foodborne illnesses is hard to quantify.

“The problem is, we don’t know how many foodborne illnesses are prevented because of the training,” Shaw said.

Regardless, the proactive steps Shaw and her team are taking to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks are leading to a safer food supply.

Vivien McCurdy, produce safety grant coordinator in Indiana, said the efforts of the NCR are helping growers improve their operations.

“When I think about what makes NCR FSMA so vital to the development of Indiana produce safety programs, many things come to mind: the information that helps build connections between growers and regulators, the leadership in bringing stakeholders together to foster a better understanding of the implementation of new produce safety rules, and the creation of a safe place for sharing challenges and brainstorming,” McCurdy said.

Iowa State University

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