4/6/2013 7:00 AM
By Teresa McMinn Southeastern, Pa. Correspondent
LEESPORT, Pa. — When it comes to the acceptable level of bacteria where produce is grown, does it make sense to apply the health safety standards set for public swimming pools?
The answer to that question is unknown, said Jeff Stoltzfus, adult agricultural instructor at Garden Spot High School in Lancaster County, Pa. Yet, that’s the standard set for surface water where produce is grown in his area.
“We really don’t have a lot of science on what is a safe number,” he said.
Stoltzfus discussed risks to food safety from animals and manure at a recent workshop at the Penn State Extension, Berks County Ag Center.
The workshop highlighted practices for growers, including those who raise food for wholesale markets, to keep fresh produce safe.
Stoltzfus also discussed challenges that produce growers face to adhere to regulations such as the new rules under review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
While livestock can be confined to a fenced area outside produce-growing areas, domestic pets such as cats and dogs as well as wild species including flocks of geese must be kept out of farm fields and away from the water supply, he said.
Noise cannons can be used to scare away birds, he said.
“The success of this is kind of variable,” he said, and he recommended that growers keep records that prove they try to prevent incursions by pests such as birds and deer.
“You do need to monitor whatever is going on in your field,” he said.
Work horses are allowed in fields that raise produce, but growers must follow guidelines and develop a policy on how to deal with the animals, Stoltzfus said.
He projected a photo of horse manure on a field of nearly ripe onions.
“Which of these onions is safe to eat?” he asked, obviously implying that manure is unsafe on food so close to harvest.
He said the good news is, most larger growers already understand and address safety concerns for produce. That’s partly because many of their customers, typically including chain supermarkets, require farmers to document their practices for food safety and undergo inspections.
But for some growers, especially smaller farms, meeting government requirements that include detailed record keeping and audits can be expensive, time consuming and difficult, he said.
“We lost a lot of the small butcher shops several years ago when they beefed up the regulations,” he said. “We know that writing all those things down on a piece of paper won’t make our produce safer.”
Stoltzfus recommends growers comment on proposed regulations. Comments on the FDA’s new rules will be taken through May 16 at http://www.regulations.gov/.
“The FDA has done a lot of listening,” he said. “The difficult challenge they have is produce is grown so differently across the country.”
Some rules make sense in one state but not another. For instance, manure guidelines might not apply to desert areas that don’t raise cattle, he said.
“In Lancaster County, you can’t go a mile without seeing a cow,” Stoltzfus said.
Tougher food safety regulations probably won’t make a difference regarding the number of people who get sick, he said.
“There’s still going to be outbreaks,” he said. “But it’s an opportunity to reduce risk.”
Bill Troxell, executive secretary of the Pennsylvania Vegetable Growers Association, agreed.
“No produce farmer wants to make their customer sick. That’s just not good business,” he said during a later phone interview. “But ... given the number of people that eat fresh produce every day, every year, we can’t say that it is unsafe with our current practices.”
The recent workshop also focused on health and hygiene for folks who harvest and handle food, traceability and recall programs.
Most cases of foodborne illness can be traced to a lack of cleanliness, said Peggy Fogarty-Harnish, Penn State Extension farm food safety program coordinator.
She discussed the need for farms to provide clean bathrooms and hand washing stations for employees.
“Hand sanitizers are not an alternative to hand washing,” she said. “It must be soap and water.”
She also talked of reasons for produce growers to educate their workers on safety and cleanliness practices.
“We are not dealing with a typical work environment oftentimes,” she said. “We need to keep these things in mind because we’re handling food.”