N.J. Growers 'Bone Up' for Food Safety Audits

Federal grant to help train more fruit and vegetable farmers.

After last year's rash of E. coli and salmonella food outbreaks with West Coast vegetables, New Jersey fruit and vegetable growers are gearing up to meet the demands of emerging food safety standards. They'll get some help, thanks to an $85,000 grant to New Jersey Department of Agriculture from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The grant is the largest single food safety grant awarded to 21 states receiving funding this year. It'll be used to support a program to educate fruit and vegetable farmers about the standards and practices required to receive third-party food safety certifications.

Consolidation in the retail supermarket sector has created fewer, but larger, distribution channels for growers. One of the best ways for small, independent farms to continue their access to the retail marketplace is to offer fresh products with documented certifications that meet national standards of quality control, consistency and food safety.

Trace-back ability is key

"In an era where consumers are more concerned about food safety than perhaps ever before, ensuring that our produce growers can meet the food-safety requirements of retailers is vital," says New Jersey Ag Secretary Charles Kuperus. "Consumers already know that Jersey Fresh fruits and vegetables are the freshest and tastiest available. This training will help our farmers go one step further in ensuring they are also safe."

"Working with Rutgers University, we already have been able to train more than 700 producers in the basics of food safety, preparing them to embark upon third-party audits," notes Kuperus. "This grant will help us provide the next step in that preparation."

The Department has been approved to conduct voluntary farm audits necessary for growers seeking third-party food safety certification. One of the most important components in this certification process is the grower's practice of procedures that provide detailed product traceability. When food-borne illnesses arise, tracing the food responsible for the illness back to its source is crucial to determine how many more people may have been exposed to it.

The grant enables the ag department and Rutgers to develop methods and materials to train growers on the good ag practices and certification process necessary to receive third-party food safety certifications.

An important component of the training will be a "mock audit" performed by third-party contractors. The mock audit will prepare growers before an actual food safety audit, performed by USDA certified inspectors working for the state ag department. NJDA personnel will not be involved in the mock audits, since the department is responsible for the actual audit.

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