URI named lead researcher on $3.5 million USDA organic food safety research grant

University of Rhode Island and The Organic Center to partner on major OREI food safety initiative

KINGSTON, R.I.  — October 4, 2023 — The University of Rhode Island and The Organic Center are pleased to announce a new collaboration on an important new organic food safety research project, enabled by a $3.5 million grant recently awarded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) research program.  

Food safety is of paramount importance for every organic grower, but organic produce and specialty crop growers can face unique challenges in trying to meet both National Organic Program standards and multiple food safety requirements. The goal of the 4-year project is to equip organic growers and industry stakeholders – organic technical assistance, trainers, certifiers and food safety auditors and inspectors – with science-based tools and training to enable them to comply simultaneously with organic agriculture rules and food safety best practices and requirements.  

Patrick Baur, assistant professor, URI Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Program (URI photo)

The project, “Developing Risk-assessment, Educational, and Communication Tools to Lower Food Safety Barriers for Organic Specialty Crop Growers,” is a result of an earlier grant led by Dr. Patrick Baur, URI assistant professor of fisheries, animal and veterinary sciences, and The Organic Center in which a national needs assessment was conducted of organic farmers. That assessment identified food safety as a top production challenge for organic farmers both in terms of operational and administrative barriers. This project aims to help farmers overcome both of those types of hurdles.   

“Americans increasingly want organic fruits and vegetables. They also want food that is safe. We have robust policies designed to deliver safe, organic food through the National Organic Program and the Food Safety Modernization Act. But on the ground, these policy worlds don’t always speak the same language or work together. The burden falls on organic farmers to deal with all the resulting tensions. That’s the reason for this multiregional OREI project,” said Baur, who is part of URI’s Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems program. “We’re going to develop a new food safety management tool designed specifically for organic soil amendments. And we’re also going to develop a suite of new communication and training tools aimed at the entire fruit and vegetable sector to build a shared language between organic agriculture and the food safety community and help them work better together.” 

The Organic Center was awarded almost $635,000, its biggest OREI award ever, to direct the project’s national extension and education efforts.  A key function by The Center will be to host 10 regional, in-person workshops with farmers, organic inspectors and certifiers, and food safety auditors and inspectors to help the organic experts understand the biggest food safety rules challenges and to educate the food safety specialists on organic practices, particularly those that could conflict with food safety rules.   

“Organic farmers face many production, regulatory and administrative barriers to growing food that protects our land and bodies. Our goal with this work is to remove some of those barriers with tools, knowledge exchange, and collaboration,” said Dr. Amber Sciligo, director of science programs at The Organic Center. “If we can get farmers, organic certifiers, technical assistants, and food safety professionals all on the same page, then meeting organic and food safety standards simultaneously will become more feasible for organic farmers.”  

Also participating in this important project will be the researchers Dr. Alda Pires and Dr. Beatriz Martinez-Lopez of the University of California at Davis and Dr. Abhinav Mishra and Dr. Govindaraj Dev Kumar of the University of Georgia.  

OREI awarded 24 research grants this year, totaling $43 million in funding. OREI helps support wide-ranging research projects that specifically address the most critical issues impacting organic growers. The 2018 Farm Bill approved increasing funding for OREI to $50 million per year by 2023, thus establishing permanent funding for the program.