New USDA survey reveals variations in produce growers’ food safety practices

The Economic Research Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recently issued an 84-page report on the level and type of food safety measures currently in place by the nation’s produce growers. The report outlines the baseline of food safety practices in the industry today as producers begin to implement practices that keep them in compliance with the latest legislation.

The survey has been described as the “before shot” in a before-and-after look at the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the U.S.’s most sweeping change to food safety regulation in decades.

“Overall, I think the report does a great job of capturing where we are today in terms of implementing some of the key components of the produce safety rule,” Dr. Jennifer McEntire, Vice President of Food Safety & Technology at United Fresh Produce Association, told Neogen. “While some aspects, such as having an audit or having a written food safety plan, are not part of the rule, including this information will help future readers understand today’s landscape.”

Key conclusions drawn from the report include:

  • Many growers covered by FSMA’s Produce Rule, as well as many who would be exempt, already have some food safety practices in place.
  • Larger growers have consistently adopted food safety practices at higher rates than smaller growers.
  • There’s a lot of work left to be done as the Produce Rule implementation moves forward, primarily in the training and application of food safety practices.
  • In the sample surveyed, 88% of organic growers and 90% of organic acres don’t use untreated manure; they report using compost or no manure products at all.
  • The majority of growers covered by the Produce Rule already tested the water they used, though they may not have tested it as frequently as required.
  • Growers who conducted third-party food safety audits spent about two to 10 times as much on costs than those that didn’t conduct audits.

This is USDA’s first update of nationwide food safety practices for produce since 1999 and since microbial produce contamination became widely recognized and researched.

“This study is important so that as implementation progresses, we can replicate the study in the future and have a useful reference point for comparison,” said McEntire. “Of course, improvements in public health are the main measures of success but are difficult to measure. Therefore, the detail in this study provides valuable information to assess current food safety practices.”

So far, the report consists of three surveys: two focused on growers’ food safety practices, and one still unpublished on postharvest operator food safety practices. We’ll update you here at the Neogen blog when the final survey goes live.

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