Food Safety Challenges
Produce Food Safety Services, a division of the LaGrange, GA-based Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, has begun receiving requests from retailers seeking assistance in sourcing local produce from growers that have achieved food safety certification. Beth Oleson, the association’s director of education and food safety, says the organization is able to recommend those that meet or meet a portion of federal food safety requirements.
While the larger commercial grower-shippers have long adapted food safety regulations, today’s attitude among the smaller growers isn’t out of sync with their larger competitors, says Oleson. While the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) may exempt some smaller operations, retailers in the marketplace want third-party audits. “We are finding most of the small growers have the same attitude the larger growers have,” she says. “‘Tell me what I need to do and I will do it’. The smaller growers have been chomping at the bit for several years since we started talking about FSMA. We have been working with our membership, as well as other organizations around the state to develop education tools, create workshops and do a lot of one-on-one farm safety mock audits where we are able to help them see where they’re doing well and areas they need to improve.”
Once growers are able to better understand the regulations and differences between FSMA and third-party audits, they find it easier to act on them, says Oleson. The association is helping the smaller growers develop food safety knowledge via writing safety plans as well as assistance preparation for third-party audits. “The only difference I’m finding in the small guys is that there are a lot of them who may have heard about the concepts of food safety, but may never have had to put them into practice,” she says. “The number of farms getting that message is increasing.”
Georgia’s peach growers are updated on food safety practices. The industry employs a produce safety specialist who developed an audit-ready program for growers and packers. The specialist makes unannounced visits to farms, groves and packinghouses, says Duke Lane III, partner with Fort Valley, GA-based Genuine Georgia Group. “That shows a lot about the importance of food safety to our growers and the cohesion we have,” he says. “As an industry, we have gone above and beyond what’s required. The industry recognizes the challenges of being able to work together to accomplish common goals.”