Va. team preps growers on water sampling

Managing Editor

PAINTER, Va. (Sept. 13, 2016) — Among the sweeping changes in the Food Safety Modernization Act is the requirement for some produce growers to routinely test the water they use for irrigation and establish a water quality profile for water sources.
The growers have between two and four years to comply, depending on the size of their operation, but researchers at the Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Education Center noticed data on surface water and guidance for growers on what to do if their water source does not meet the requirement was lacking and took action.
Led by Dr. Laura Strawn, Virginia Tech Extension food science specialist, a team of Eastern Shore of Virginia agriculture agents and research center staff partnered with growers to do sampling of surface waters used for overhead irrigation to establish baseline data for growers.
For the past two growing seasons, the team sampled 20 ponds 20 times each for E. coli levels as part of the study, and calculated the source’s water quality profile.
The study showed 17 of the 20 water13sources took samples met the required water quality standard.
Of the three ponds that did not meet the standard, the study found that stopping irrigation from the source two days before harvest would allow the grower to continue to use the water source within the FSMA regulation.
Straw said the study gives growers a starting point to establish their own water quality profiles and what to expect to deal with and the Extension staff have data to point to when conducting training workshops. 
“I think a lot of growers in Virginia are starting to step up the frequency of testing toward establishing the water quality profile,” Strawn said. “So now as trainers, it’s giving us some data on what we’ve found.”
With some crops, Strawn said a two-day irrigation before harvest doesn’t pose a significant challenge but other crops, snap beans is one example, it could affect management practices.
The water quality requirement is one part of FSMA’s Produce Safety Rule which went into effect in January and is one of seven rules contained in FSMA to overhaul the United States’ food safety practices.
Under the rule, growers must establish a profile for each surface water source — considered by the Food and Drug Administration as the most vulnerable of external influences — with a minimum of 20 samples over two to four years and another five samples annually after that.
The five new samples, plus the previous most recent 15 samples, create a rolling dataset of 20 samples for use in confirming that that the water is still used appropriately.
Dates of grower compliance for the Produce Safety Rule vary depending on the size of the operation.
Operations with more than $25,000 but no more than $250,000 in average annual produce sales during the previous three year period have four years.
Businesses with more than $250,000 but no more than $500,000 in average annual produce sales during the previous three year period have three years and all other farms have two years.
For growers just starting to work in water sampling into their crop management schedule, Strawn said she tells them to start slow and not get overwhelmed by the requirements.
“We just tell them ‘baby steps,” she said.
Strawn said grower outreach about the study has included social media posts, hands-on workshops and model summaries for there growers who participated in the study. She said those efforts will continue and study will also be part of a larger workshop this winter partnering with the Produce Safety Alliance for applicable operations to certify a “qualified individual” who can prepare and oversee the rule’s implementation on the farm.