URI experts help Rhode Island farmers address new food safety regulations

KINGSTON, R.I. – January 8, 2018 – The passage of the Food Safety and Modernization Act of 2011, touted as the largest overhaul of food safety regulations in decades, has concerned many farmers in Rhode Island. Some of the rules target farmers that have never had to address such regulations before, and the deadlines for complying are fast approaching.

So University of Rhode Island food safety experts are reaching out to guide Rhode Island farmers through the paperwork and procedures and offering training and one-on-one assistance to ease the process.

“Farmers are nervous about it, and I’m not surprised,” said Lori Pivarnik, coordinator of URI’s Food Safety Education Program. “There is a lot of confusion about what’s actually required of them. But a lot of them have been implementing food safety strategies for a long time, so I think they’re a lot further along to meeting the requirements than they think they are.”

The regulations are designed to address the numerous outbreaks of food-borne illnesses like listeria and salmonella that have been documented across the country in the last 10 to 15 years, many of which have been traced to raw produce.

“Those growing produce have never been under a regulatory authority before, so they’re not used to it yet,” Pivarnik said. “But every other type of food processing operation in the state is experienced with this kind of regulatory oversight.

“Our seafood processors went through the same thing in the late 1990s, and it required changes to their way of thinking,” she added. “It took a while for the rules to become embedded in how they do things, but once they start doing it, it just becomes the way of doing business.”

According to Pivarnik, the regulation that is causing worry among farmers is called “Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packaging and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption.” It requires them to address issues related to agricultural water use, worker health and hygiene, cleaning and sanitation after harvest, soil amendments, and other topics.

Many of the state’s smaller farmers will qualify for the rule’s exemption and will only have to comply with some simple, modified requirements.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Agriculture is responsible for implementation of the new rules, so URI is working with the Division of Agriculture and the Rhode Island Department of Health to offer training workshops so farmers know what steps they must take to be in compliance with the new regulations. While the training is specific to the new regulations, it is somewhat similar to a voluntary food safety program called Rhode Island Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) that Pivarnik and her URI colleagues have been offering since 2003.

“That’s why we think many of our farmers are already taking many of the required steps,” Pivarnik said. “They’ve already been through our voluntary GAP program, and we’ve already audited their farms, so they have a lot of things in place already.”

Pivarnik believes that farmers are primarily concerned about the burden of recordkeeping and the cost of implementing the new requirements. Of particular concern are the rules requiring the periodic testing of the water they use to irrigate their crops to ensure it isn’t contaminated; the requirement that animal intrusion into fields is assessed prior to harvest; and that the application of biological soil amendments – manure and compost – must meet certain requirements.

“Worker training is also important for produce safety,” said Sejal Lanterman of the URI Food Safety Education Program, who is available to visit farms to explain the requirements to local farmers. “You’re only as good as your worst employee.”

Farmers who want to sell their produce beyond local farmers markets are finding that wholesalers and other buyers are requiring their suppliers to follow proper food safety practices and implement food safety strategies.

“While some of this may be challenging to the farmer, overall it will strengthen our local food system,” Lanterman said.

Large farms are required to comply with the new regulations by January 2018, while mid-sized and smaller farms that do not meet the exemption criteria must do so by 2019 and 2020, respectively. All farms that must meet the regulatory requirements will be inspected by the Division of Agriculture approximately a year after the mandated compliance dates. The compliance date for regulations related to water use is four years after the compliance date for the rest of the regulations.

Pivarnik and Lanterman will lead another training session targeting farms of all sizes on March 21 and 22. Future training will be offered once or twice each year.

“These new regulations are all about preventing food-borne illness,” Pivarnik said. “While there has never been a documented outbreak of food-borne illness traced to produce grown in Rhode Island, we want to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future. We want to help our farmers prove that they’ve done the best they can to ensure it doesn’t happen here. However, everyone needs to remember that food safety is a shared responsibility from farm to table – from growing, harvesting, and processing to retailer and consumer.”

For more information, visit the URI Food Safety Education website at http://web.uri.edu/foodsafety.