EXPO panels to examine food safety, inspections By Jess Schmidt, contributing writer

Produce recalls are becoming too common. Food safety is paramount, and Ohio and Michigan are among Great Lakes states that will begin offering free food safety inspections in the next year. States are working to interpret the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) with regard to water and irrigation while beginning to inspect growing operations for other aspects of the regulation. A panel at the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO will discuss what FSMA means for growers and how growers can take advantage of free consultations and inspections to improve their operations’ food safety.

“While we aren’t sure what the Food Safety Modernization Act will say about water safety, exactly, we do know that the effective dates have moved out into 2022 or 2024,” said Matthew Fout, produce and food safety supervisor at the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

Ohio is in the process of training 18 field inspectors. These inspectors will work outside of the commonly inspected packinghouses and instead focus on field food safety. The inspectors will go through an FDA-provided training course for regulators, a produce safety grower training and an internal training program implemented by the state. The FDA recommends that field food safety inspections begin in the spring of 2019, and Ohio will be ready to start inspecting both greenhouses and hydroponic operations at that point; when the growing season starts, the inspectors will move to the outdoor farms.  

Fout said he anticipates these inspections will run anywhere from a half to a full day, depending on the size of the operation as well as the level of detail the FDA recommends inspectors check.

Inspectors will look at food safety including equipment, utensils, and personnel health and hygiene. Water safety and irrigation will be added at a later date.

Some of the goals of these inspections are to eliminate sources of contamination, to promote safety within the state of Ohio as well as to states where produce is exported and to improve produce safety in whole on the farm or in the greenhouse.

Ohio has begun to reach out to produce growers throughout the state to offer consultations in preparation for next year’s inspections. “We want to give them an idea of what they have to do to comply with the FSMA,” Fout said. They also will be opening up the consultations and inspections to anyone who grows produce – not just to those above the $25,000 annually in produce sales per previous three years’ threshold, the point at which the inspections are required. Those inspections, like those required for larger operations, will remain free of charge.

“With the start of FSMA Produce Rule inspections beginning next March, it’s important to get a handle on what to expect when being inspected. In almost every state, a state unit of government will be doing the inspections,” said Phillip Tocco of Michigan State University Extension. “Each state will have a slightly different way of implementing inspections. Other speakers in the food safety track will talk about alternatives, variances and appeals and how to use them. We’ll also present about some nifty resources online to help growers that need a water lab and so much more.” Tocco said Michigan is offering some unique resources available online to help growers understand how to improve their food safety in the field and greenhouse.

“Michigan is focusing on education of our produce farms regarding the Produce Safety Rule and providing technical assistance,” said Kristin Esch of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Like Ohio, the produce safety technicians deployed by Michigan will offer free technical assistance to all farms, regardless of size.

“Michigan has a tool called the Produce Safety Risk Assessment (PSRA) that is designed to ask questions related to produce safety and determine if it’s a low, medium or high risk.  In 2017, the PSRA was revamped to align with the new Produce Safety Rules,” Esch said.

The Michigan technicians will go through the PSRA tool at a farmer’s operation and help determine where the farms are already meeting the PSR and where growers will need to make improvements. The technicians will even assist in making those improvements, if requested. The PSRA is excellent for those growers who need to refresh their own memories and skills in produce safety and ideal for small or new farming operations.

Another tool offered by Michigan, the On Farm Readiness Review (OFRR) is suited for larger operations. “Both tools are free, anonymous and confidential,” Esch said.

The food safety panel at the EXPO is two hours long and will have experts from Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. Each panelist will speak for 15 minutes about how their state is structuring inspections; then they will open the floor for questions.

The EXPO runs Dec. 4-6 at DeVos Place in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Registration will open in late September. Visit www.GLEXPO.com for more information.

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