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Small Growers & Food Safety

Food safety is serious business. And while growers are responding to consumer demand for more local, distinct foods, the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule (PSR) is going to be a game changer in terms of how we will be growing produce in West Virginia. The FSMA puts greater emphasis on preventing food-borne illness from farm to table. The reasoning is simple: the better the food system handles producing, processing, transporting and preparing foods, the safer our food supply will be. With an average of 48 million (one in six Americans) getting sick, and 3,000 Americans dying from food-borne diseases annually, the FDA is clear about one thing - to keep consumers safe, the food industry needs to shift its focus from reactive to preventive. Every year, 12.3 percent of all food safety outbreaks are traced to fresh produce, and two percent are traced to practices on farms – that’s 960,000 illnesses per year traced to on-farm practices or conditions (

What is the PSR and how is it different from Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs)?

Understanding the difference between GAPs certification and the PSR will be essential for growers. Simply put, GAPs are a voluntary food safety program driven by buyers’ requirements, whereas the PSR is law. The FSMA’s PSR establishes, for the first time, science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption, which some produce growers must adhere to. The PSR does not require a food safety plan, while GAPs certification does. Even if a farm is FSMA compliant, chances are a buyer maintaining higher food safety standards will require farms to have a third-party GAPs certification in order to sell to them. Buyers strictly define their requirements, so it is best to identify the buyer and know what their standards are before undergoing a GAPs audit. Contact Dee Singh-Knights for additional documentation regarding this topic.

Who and what is covered under the PSR?

In order to understand the PSR and what parts of the rule apply to a specific farm, it is important to first define if the farm grows covered produce (produce that will be inspected) or not. The second step is to determine if the farm may be eligible for a qualified exemption or may not be covered at all. If the farm does not meet the requirements set for qualified exempt farm, it is covered by the PSR. Contact Dee Singh-Knights for additional documents that help determine whether farms are covered by the rule or not, and if farms are eligible for a qualified exemption and modified requirements.

Some key requirements in the final PSR have been put on hold. What does this mean for farmers?

On January 26 of 2018, farms that have sold an average of more than $500,000 in produce during each of the past three years were required to comply with the PSR requirements that apply to them. These requirements include standards for worker training in health and hygiene, standards about domesticated and wild animals, and other standards designed to ensure that that equipment, tools and buildings are properly cleaned and maintained to prevent produce contamination. Two key requirements of the PSR have been put on hold until further notice – 1) the standard for the interval between application and harvest for raw manure used as fertilizer; and 2) the numerical criteria for microbial water quality and testing frequency, and post-harvest water monitoring requirements.

The reason given for this deferral is “ to address questions about the practical implementation of compliance with certain provisions and to consider how we might further reduce the regulatory burden or increase flexibility while continuing to achieve regulatory objectives, in keeping with the FDA’s policies”. (Produce Safety Alliance, March, 2018). The FDA has extended compliance dates for agricultural water and certain soil amendments, and is currently working with stakeholders to resolve these issues that would be a win for both growers and consumers. Dee Singh-Knights has more information on current efforts being conducted to help resolve these issues.

What should ‘covered’ farms be doing in light of the soil amendment and agricultural water requirement deferrals?

Larger farms faced the January 26, 2018, deadline, but all covered farms should be getting ready to comply with the requirements of the PSR, except for the water and soil amendments because of the extended compliance dates. They should understand the produce safety risks affecting their farm, what management practices need to be adjusted to meet the PSR standards and how best to implement recommended practices to reduce produce safety risks. Farms that meet the standards for a qualified exemption and associated modified requirements should be maintaining the records needed to establish that they are eligible for same.

What is the financial impact of getting food safety wrong?

Going forward, growers need to reassess their practices to ensure all their food safety bases are covered and set incremental food safety goals for improvements and documentation. Understandably, producers may consider this a daunting task as they consider the cost of compliance or are overwhelmed by the many aspects of the regulations. But, they also need to consider the far-reaching effects of a commitment to better safety procedures. Produce safety matters because it directly impacts the health and wellness of their customers. Produce safety extends far beyond health; growers have to think about their bottom line and the reputation of their brand. No producer, large or small, can afford the damage to their reputation from a food safety outbreak; in fact, food safety recalls pose one of the biggest risks to profitability (Recall: The Food Industry’s Biggest Threat to Profitability; America’s Food Industry has a $55.5 Billion Safety Problem). Additionally, the money spent on food safety improvements can also lead to less waste of compromised products, and can also help you to take advantage of related insurance premiums. You also have to think about consumer confidence benefits; attention to food safety will also help increase consumers’ confidence in the local food system.

My farm is small, do I get a pass on food safety compliance?

Operations averaging less than $25,000 in produce sales over the last three years are not covered by the rule. However, whether your growers are covered by the PSR or not, it is likely that produce safety will impact their operations through increasing buyer requirements or heightened consumer scrutiny. Many smaller direct markets (farmers markets, schools, restaurants, etc.) are beginning to ask for documentation of food-safety practices. Food-borne illnesses linked to produce, such as the current romaine lettuce recall, will likely place food safety compliance at the top of buyers’ requirements.

How are we helping?

In West Virginia, we are committed to ensuring that all growers, regardless of size or style of operation, have the support and resources they need to help keep West Virginia’s food supply safe. The West Virginia University Extension Service, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and West Virginia State University have partnered to form the West Virginia Food Safety Training Team (WVFSTT) to help producers build a culture of food safety in West Virginia for the long haul. We are currently conducting grower produce safety training that helps to reinforce what growers already know and practice on their farm, and provide new information on GAPs and FSMA as well. Our training simultaneously covers both GAPs recommendations and the PSR requirements, with an optional food safety planning workshop for those growers wanting to become GAPs certified. The WVFSTT is also getting ready to roll out our On-Farm Readiness Review, which is an educational opportunity to help growers assess how well they’re prepared to meet the requirements of the Produce Safety Rule. More information will be forthcoming.

Author: Dee Singh-Knights, WVU Extension Service Specialist - Agribusiness Economics and Management
Last Reviewed: April 2018