White Grapes

University of Minnesota

As opportunities to raise fruits and vegetables become available, growers may want to learn about the Produce Safety Rule.

Overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), this rule is part of the Food Safety Modernization Act passed in 2011. The overarching goal of this rule is producing safe food to prevent microbial contamination and reduce foodborne illness associated with fresh produce.

It’s taking a long time to put this rule into practice – this is the first time that science-based food safety standards have been written for certain categories of produce.

Yet the need for the rule is bore out based on E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks. In addition to leafy produce outbreaks mentioned here, there have been outbreaks in meat, flour, soynut butter, sprouts, Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants, Costco rotisserie chicken salad and hazelnuts, according to the Center for Disease Control.

- A 2011-2012 E. coli O157:H7 in romaine lettuce sickened at least 49 people with 33 hospitalized. Three developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, but there were no deaths.

- Linked to greens raised in Massachusetts, a 2012 E. coli O157:H7 in organic spinach and spring mix blend sickened 33 people with 13 hospitalizations.

- A 2013 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 was discovered in ready-to-eat salads infecting 33 people with 7 people hospitalized.

- In 2017, E. coli O157:H7 affected 25 people that ate leafy greens, though a specific location where the greens were raised was not identified.

- Early in 2018, 210 people were infected with E. coli O157:H7 after eating romaine lettuce raised in the Yuma, Ariz., growing area. There were 96 people hospitalized and five deaths, including two deaths in Minnesota.

- As of early 2019, Adam Bros. Farming, Inc., in Santa Barbara County, Calif., recalled red leaf lettuce, green leaf lettuce and cauliflower harvested Nov. 27-30, 2018 because of concern over E. coli O157:H7 contamination. There were 62 reported cases of E. coli O157:H7 with 25 people hospitalized. The Center for Disease Control identified the outbreak strain in sediment collected within an ag water reservoir.

Locally grown, wide-spread implications

As part of the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act, the FDA wrote seven rules, and one of those rules is the Produce Safety Rule for safe growing, harvesting, packing and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for people to eat.

FDA has asked each state to build programs and complete enforcement that make certain produce is safe. If the state is not interested in their own program, the FDA will implement the rule.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) received a five-year grant to build a produce safety program. An important future goal of the program is free inspections to farms to show they are complying with this rule.

In addition, MDA is currently offering a Grower Training Course. The nationally-developed program takes about 7-8 hours to complete and covers topics such as worker health and hygiene, wildlife, agricultural water for production and postharvest, and writing a farm food safety plan.

This course satisfies a mandate in the Produce Safety Rule that requires at least one supervisor from each farm subject to the rule to complete food safety training, plus it is a very interesting and educational course.

National Ag Statistics Service has said Minnesota has about 74,000 farms and about 3,000 of those farms grow at least $1,000 worth of produce for commercial sale.

At the MDA, Val Gamble is the Produce Safety Program manager. Since starting her job two and a half years ago, her responsibilities have included developing an inventory of produce farms within Minnesota.

Gamble needs to find out how many of those 3,000 farms included in the National Ag Statistics number are subject to the Produce Safety Rule. Program staff encourage people who grow produce to fill out a questionnaire about their operations. She and staff talk to people at conferences and offer the Grower Training Course in partnership with University of Minnesota Extension staff.

So far, the program has received training evaluations from 344 Minnesotans who grow produce and have taken the Grower Training Course. Sixty percent of those attending Grower Training were owners/operators rather than employees. About half of the respondents are male and half are female, which backs up Census of Ag data indicating an increase in female farm operators.

Another interesting statistic is that a high percentage of those raising produce have 0-5 years of farming experience.

“We have a lot of new farmers in the state,” Gamble said.

Gamble noted that the Producer Safety Rule has a lot of exemptions that operators will want to know. The Produce Safety Rule is set up to only affect farms that sell more than $25,000 in produce annually, over a three-year average adjusted for inflation.

There is also an exemption to the rule for people who are making direct sales or participating in farmers’ markets in their local community. If the majority of the grower’s sales go directly to customers within 275 miles of the farm, or in the same state, the grower is potentially exempt, she added.

“We’ve got a list of crops that are covered and a whole list of crops that aren’t covered. There are quite a few farms that are exempt,” she said. “It’s an interesting conversation in terms of an equal-playing field. Just from the perception, ‘If one farm isn’t inspected vs. one that is, what does that mean for buyers or anyone else?’ The main driver for all of those assumptions for the small farm exemptions is financial.”

Beginning this summer, the MDA Produce Safety Program – as well as programs in many other states – will start inspecting produce operations. The program will continue to offer assistance to anyone regarding barriers or challenges to safely growing produce.

She encourages everyone, though, to take food safety seriously – whether growing a garden for your own family, sharing food with neighbors and friends, selling at farmers’ markets or running a produce stand at the end of the driveway.

No one wants to give someone a foodborne illness, and the Produce Safety Program can help with that.

“So many farmers are exempt from this new rule, but what we’re really trying to say is, ‘Ultimately you are still responsible for producing safe food if you’re selling food commercially in the state of Minnesota, no matter what kind of food.’” Gamble said. “You’re never exempt from baseline food safety requirements.”

To learn more about the Minnesota Department of Ag Produce Safety Program, email producesafety.mda@state.mn.us or call 651-539-3648.

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