Produce contamination accounts for an estimated 46% of foodborne illnesses across the United States each year — a serious issue affecting health, the economy and society as a whole. Even in the midst of the current pandemic, safety training for produce farmers is not only vital, but required for many, said MU Extension horticulture field specialist Patrick Byers.
To combat contamination issues, the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule requires that many growers receive education and produce safety training, such as that offered by the Produce Safety Alliance through MU Extension. With COVID-19 restrictions on face-to-face training, the MU Extension team moved quickly to offer this necessary training online.
“Quite frankly, our farmers don’t want to make people sick,” Byers said. “You have to understand what goes into growing safe produce. And the Produce Safety Alliance training is, in my experience, probably the best training available to help farmers understand what it takes to produce and handle crops safely.”
Byers, the lead trainer, works with MU Extension Food Safety State Specialist Londa Nwadike, who has a joint appointment with Kansas State University (KSU), and with KSU Research and Extension Produce Safety Associate Cal Jamerson to educate individuals across Missouri and Kansas.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, these three, along with the North Central Region’s Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Alliance (FSMA PSA) outreach team at Iowa State University, developed effective online materials and training.
Training is organized into seven modules that cover topics including health and hygiene, presence of animals on a farm, use of soil amendments, use of water during harvest and post-harvest activities, and handling of produce at harvest and post-harvest with a particular emphasis on sanitation. There are also lessons on food safety plans, record keeping and other planning aspects of the produce safety rule, Byers said.
“It’s difficult to do some of these trainings without physically being with people, so we were apprehensive about that,” Byers explained. “But our response to that was to look at ways we could enhance the learning environment with experiences in a virtual format.”
For instance, Byers and Jamerson encouraged engagement by asking participants at random to answer training questions — ensuring all understood the material. The team followed new Produce Safety Alliance remote training requirements, which included seeing all attendees and with training manuals in hand during online video-conferencing sessions.
While trainers are eager to see participants face-to-face when it is safe to do so, Byers and Nwadike said there have been some unexpected benefits to remote learning.
“Typically, with an in-person training, you’re talking about an 8-hour time commitment, and that can be a challenge for farmers when they have to leave the farm for that long,” Byers said. “But when we could put together a virtual offering in two afternoons or two evenings, then it’s often easier for farmers. We saw that we were actually reaching larger audiences.”
The ease of accessing online training also may have boosted registrations. Even though, pre-COVID-19, they held many face-to-face trainings across Kansas and Missouri, the team could “not be in everybody’s backyard,” Nwadike said.
As online demand grows, more specialists have helped, including MU Extension’s Jim Meyer, Juan Cabrera-Garcia, Ramon Arancibia and Robert Balek, as well as KSU extension faculty.
Remote delivery training will continue at least until the end of September; perhaps longer as the team monitors COVID-19 health and safety requirements.
While the trainings target farmers who are subject to the produce safety rule, anyone interested in an in-depth exposure to growing and handling safe produce is welcome.
“We frequently have attendees that work for regulatory agencies, the FDA or the Missouri Department of Agriculture,” Byers said. “These people have regulatory responsibilities and they, too, need to learn about the realities of growing and handling safe produce.”
Due to grants provided by the Missouri Department of Agriculture and Kansas Department of Agriculture, Extension can offer the FSMA PSA training for $20 per person. A full list of upcoming trainings can be found on the K-State Extension website.
More produce safety information is available on the MU Extension website, as well: https://extension2.missouri.edu/programs/food-safety/produce-safety-for-growers