Food safety critical in value-added food

AFP Correspondent

LINCROFT (March 1, 2016) — Whether they sell at an on-farm stand or at a local farmers market or even if they operate a CSA, many farmers today are adding value-added products to boost revenue.
But adding product can add complications.
Dr. Donald W. Schaffner spoke to a classroom full of farmers at the NOFA-NJ Winter Conference on Sunday, Jan. 31.
Schaffner is an Extension specialist in food science and a university professor at Rutgers.
He has taught food safety for more than 25 years, educating thousands of food industry professionals in the United States and around the world.
“Bacteria don’t care who you are,” he told the group of farmers just before he asked them to introduce themselves and identify the issues they wanted addressed.
Complicating farmers’ lives are the plethora of agencies that regulate food safety.
Depending on the product, one of two federal agencies could be the regulatory agency involved, the USDA regulates meat and the Food and Drug Administration regulates pretty much everything else.
Milk is under pasteurized milk ordinances, state by state.
In New Jersey, Chapter 24 of the New Jersey Department of Health Regulations governs foodborne diseases, pathogens and health hazards. Unlike USDA standards, which Schaffner described as “an insomnia cure,” Chapter 24 is fairly easy to read and understand.
Prepared food sold at farm stands and farmers’ markets must comply with Chapter 24. All food must be prepared in licensed, inspected kitchens. According to the booklet, “Chapter 24 and You,” “In general, fresh, uncut fruits and vegetables can be sold at all farmers markets without restriction. Prepared products, however, must meet standards in how they are made and presented for sale.” The booklet goes on to describe proper procedures for a variety of products.
The rules are pretty straightforward, including regulations prohibiting unapproved food additives and requiring that eggs and milk be pasteurized when used as additives.
Gloves, ice that has been in contact with the exterior of foods and cloths for wiping up spills are also regulated. Health and safety records must be maintained for health department inspection and one person involved in the business is expected to be named the person in charge of health and safety.
Regulations also govern sources and containers as well as freezing and refrigeration requirements.
“In New Jersey, home rule rules,” Schaffner said. That means implementation of the rules rests with the municipal or county health department. “It’s up to them to interpret or enforce the laws,” Schaffner said, adding, “People think differently.”
“In the long run, you can make friends with inspectors,” he said.
Meredith Melendez, ag Extension agent from Mercer County, also spoke to farmers about safety.
Before the produce reaches a farm market, farmers can access resources from the Produce Safety Alliance, a collaboration among Cornell University, the FDA and the USDA to prepare produce growers to meet the Farm Safety Modernization Act. According to its website, the PSA’s mission is “providing fundamental, science-based, on-farm food safety knowledge to fresh fruit and vegetable farmers, packers, regulatory personnel and others interested in the safety of fresh produce.
The PSA came up with training guidelines and will instruct the largest farmers first. These are farms that do more than $500,000 in business annually, Melendez said. Small businesses are defined as doing between $250,000 and $500,000 annually. A very small business does between $25,000 and $250,000.
Melendez explained a farm is considered a wholesaler if it goes to a distributor or if 51 percent or more of sales go to a restaurant or retail food establishment in the same state or a restaurant within 275 miles. “Foreign sales have a whole separate set of rules,” she said.
Agricultural water is covered by guidelines as well, Melendez said.
She explained people who use public water need to have it tested by an accredited lab. If the water is treated, testing is not required but it is recommended. There is one EPA-approved treatment for contamination.
Farms served by a stream should use a minimum of 20 samples to establish a standard and if more than one farm draws water from the same stream, the farmers should share the costs of testing, Melendez said.
For water kept in tanks, farmers must keep track of the water-changing schedule and of when dunk tanks are emptied. Temperature must be monitored. “Cold water is great a getting the field heat out of vegetables, but the tank should be covered all night,” she said.
Soil is also a source of contamination, Melendez said. “Untreated soil amendments are the highest risk,” she said, “you just can’t wing it with compost.”
She said the good news is farms don’t have to comply with bioterrorism initiatives.