Food Safety Hits the Farm

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Foodborne illnesses cost the USA more than $15 billion a year, according to the latest United States Department of Agriculture statistics. These numbers can translate into 48 million consumers getting sick, with 128,000 being hospitalized and 3,000 dying. Respectively, fresh produce remains the leading source of foodborne illness outbreaks, implicating pathogens such as Escherichia coli 0157:H7, Salmonella, and Listeria monocytogenes.

In 2011, President Obama signed into law one of the biggest game changers in food safety in over 50 years. Most of you may not have heard of the Food Safety Modernization Act or FSMA (an acronym that is pronounced fizz-ma). This law will help us begin to proactively address food safety instead of just responding to outbreaks. FSMA has expanded the authority of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to include farms, importers of food, companies that manufacture pet food and animal food, and to a great extent, farms that grow fruits and vegetables. Yes, this rule will also affect products grown for animal food, which technically can include grain crops such as corn and soybeans. The FDA has categorized the new law into four components: prevention, inspection/compliance, response, and imports.

The part of FSMA that will affect our local growers significantly would be the Produce Safety Rule. For the first time, this rule establishes science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption. Every step of producing fresh fruits and vegetables will be directed and documented. As you can see, the farmer will be expected to account for every aspect of that particular crop’s journey – from the field to the distributor. There are certain crops that will be exempt from this rule, especially if a kill step (such as cooking or sanitizing) exists for any possible present pathogen. This rule will not apply to every grower. The list of exempt crops is fairly long; to see this list, please visit the FDA’s website or call your local N.C. Cooperative Extension Center for more details. If the crop is considered a product that can be consumed raw, it is more likely to be covered.

Growers can also be exempt depending on who the qualified end user is, that is the official rule jargon for who the final consumer is. If most of a grower’s product is sold directly to the consumer or to a restaurant/retail food establishment located within the same state or no more than 275 miles from the farm, then the grower may be exempt from this rule. The rule is also being phased in over a 3-year period; larger farms averaging over $500,000 in sales began coverage January 26, 2018. Farms with food revenues between $250,000 to not more than $500,000 began coverage January 28, 2019. Farms averaging between $28,000 up to $250,000 will start January 27, 2020.

For more information about FSMA or the Produce Safety Rule, contact Mack Johnson, Extension Horticultural Agent, at 910-671-3276, by email at, or visit our website.

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