Pennsylvania supermarkets in coming years will continue to purchase fresh produce from local growers but increasingly will require them to show proof of employing good agricultural practices, or GAPS, according to a study by researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.
Good agricultural practices are food-safety standards that reduce the risk of on-farm contamination of produce, according to Daniel Tobin, a doctoral candidate in agricultural and extension education, the study's principal investigator. GAPs include recommendations for safe irrigation methods, use of raw and composted animal manure, worker health and hygiene, post-harvest handling practices, and traceability procedures.
For Pennsylvania growers to maintain wholesale market opportunities, they will have to put forth substantial effort to comply with and verify their on-farm, food-safety practices, the study concluded.
"Growers, therefore, will need GAP training and educational materials," Tobin said. "General training about potential on-farm, food-safety hazards and preventative measures no longer will be adequate. To achieve maximum impact, the curriculum must focus on implementing and documenting GAPs so growers will be prepared to pass a GAP audit."
On-farm, food-safety measures are critical, Tobin noted, because an estimated 48 million foodborne illnesses, including 3,000 deaths, occur each year in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He cited research that has documented a rising number of reported outbreaks in fresh produce.
"In response, supermarkets have been implementing policies that require their fresh produce suppliers to attend training workshops on farm food safety and/or to verify compliance with food-safety standards through fee-based, third-party certification, or TPC," Tobin said.
"TPC is a process in which an independent, third-party auditor conducts an on-site inspection to determine whether a supplier's practices and procedures comply with a certain set of standards, such as GAPs."
Produce growers who need to verify GAP conformity through third-party compliance can select among several audit agencies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service, in association with state departments of agriculture, offers a voluntary audit program that growers can use to verify on-farm food-safety practices.
Private companies also offer audit services, but their GAP standards and documentation requirements can vary from company to company.
The safety of fresh fruits and vegetables has received national attention, highlighted by the recent passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law in early 2011 by President Obama. Under this law, the Food and Drug Administration will establish mandatory minimum standards, based on known safety risks, for produce growers to implement and document.
To help develop a relevant GAP training curriculum that meets the needs of Pennsylvania growers, Penn State researchers surveyed supermarkets that operate in the state to determine their food-safety policies and practices that affect local produce growers.
Pennsylvania consumers also were surveyed because they help drive demand for produce. The researchers found that consumers are highly concerned about the safety of the produce supply.
"Assessing American consumer perceptions regarding produce safety is particularly important, because those perceptions will allow actors within the supply chain to better meet consumer demand," Tobin said.
"Using data collected from Pennsylvania consumers, our study documents how consumer demographics -- and their preferences for specific attributes in fresh produce, such as local, organic and inspected for food safety -- affect their produce-safety perceptions."
Such an analysis provides important information for stakeholders seeking to implement practices that reduce the risk of foodborne contamination, Tobin explained. A clearer understanding of consumer produce-safety perceptions and preferences will allow stakeholder groups, including growers and supermarkets, to make better-informed decisions regarding their food-safety policies and practices.
"In addition, assessing consumer produce-safety perceptions can help Penn State Extensionadapt its educational programming to address public demand," he said.
"As supermarket food-safety policies become more stringent, extension can serve a valuable role in helping growers meet new food-safety documentation challenges and in facilitating communication about the needs and interests of growers, supermarkets and consumers."
The research was described in recent peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of Extension and in Food Control, a journal published by Elsevier.
Also involved in the study were Joan Thomson, professor emerita of agricultural communication, Luke LaBorde, associate professor of food science, and Jessica Bagdonis, doctoral candidate in agricultural and extension education.
For his work associated with produce safety and good agricultural practices, Tobin in May will receive the Evans Family Award for Graduate Student Extension Achievement from the College of Agricultural Sciences, which recognizes the application of research in Extension programming.