State revs up food-safety training for extension agents

While health officials are most recently on top of the H1N1 (aka “swine”) flu, in the past year, news of food-contamination problems in the U.S. has spurred not just Congress into action, but local and state agencies into coming up with ways to make sure we don’t face salmonella-tainted jalapeños or poisoned peanuts (or, back in 2006, e-coli on fresh spinach). To this end, the North Carolina Cooperative Extension gave its agents some food-safety training on April 30 and May 1. Later this spring or early summer, the extension service plans to train anyone involved in handling fresh produce — from farmers and field hands to packing houses, truckers, grocery stores, farmers markets and roadside stands.

The training focuses on the whole food chain, says Diane Ducharme, member of the N.C. State University Program for Value-Added & Alternative Agriculture and co-chair of the N.C. Fresh Produce Safety Task Force. “Contamination can happen anywhere along [that] chain,” she says. Pathogens could lurk in the soil, come from the water, be passed on by a farm hand, crop up in transportation, or occur at the store or farmers market when a worker doesn’t use proper hygiene, Ducharme explains. Cows upstream could contaminate the farmer’s water source, or a worker could fail to wash his hands before handling the produce. “We’re working on things we can control, [and emphasizing] practices that make sense in the farm environment,” she says. The training will focus on Good Agricultural Practices – GAPs for short, Ducharme explains.

“Farmers are keenly interested in implementing practices that minimize risks to the food supply, and they are receiving added pressure from industry to implement Good Agricultural Practices and become GAP certified,” she continues.

At least one packing house — serving tomato and pepper growers in several western counties — has told farmers that they will need certification to sell their produce to the packing house, says Susan Colucci, an extension agent for Buncombe, Haywood and Henderson counties.

The training addresses such practices as checking for sources of waste contamination near crops, verifying safety of water used to irrigate crops, regular hand-washing procedures, cleanliness of trucks that transport produce, and maintaining the “cold chain” temperature of produce from the field. Procedures for tracing produce bought in the store or farmers market all the way back to the field where it was picked are also be explained, Ducharme says. Such “traceability” has become important for health officials when an incident of contaminated food occurs. Not only does it help identify the source of contamination, but traceability also enables a farmer or packing house to show that its produce was not the source of the problem, she added.

“North Carolina farmers work hard to provide a safe food supply. They make a conscious effort to address issues that will enhance their operations and alleviate food safety concerns,” says Ducharme. “This training is designed to educate them on research-based practices and to strengthen their current efforts.  In short, it helps farmers and the public.”

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— Margaret Williams, contributing editor

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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