Review program helping produce growers prepare for federal compliance

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Dana Boyle welcomed the group of visitors to her family’s farm, adding, “I’m not nervous about this. I don’t know whether I should be.”

Boyle, whose family operates Garner’s Produce in Westmoreland County, took part in an On-Farm Readiness Review, offered by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and Virginia Cooperative Extension, on April 4. The review program was developed by the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture to help produce growers comply with the Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act’s Produce Safety Rule.

Adopted in 2017, the rule establishes science-based minimum standards for safe growing, harvesting, packing and holding of fresh fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption. Starting May 1, it will apply to Garner’s and other U.S. farms with annual sales of $500,000 or greater. Compliance dates for smaller-scale produce farms are staggered based on business size.

Boyle said Garner’s includes about 100 acres of fruits and vegetables that are sold at the farm’s retail stand and at farmers’ markets in Washington and Northern Virginia. As VDACS and Extension staff referred to specific sections of an On-Farm Readiness Review manual, she shared details about her employee training procedures; sanitation practices; water sources; and on-farm restrooms, hand-washing stations and other areas accessible to customers.

She also talked about steps taken to keep wildlife away from food packing and sale surfaces. The retail stand has a ceiling to prevent birds from nesting under the roof, she explained, and she’d made arrangements with an animal rescue organization to re-locate stray cats that are drawn to the farm. “The cats are getting taken care of,” she emphasized, adding that cat-proofing a specific storage area had proved challenging.

“You want to try to figure out how to mitigate that,” said Alex Goodman, a VDACS produce safety specialist.

Boyle also took the opportunity to ask about approved procedures for washing greens after they are harvested. “I want to add that value for my customers,” she explained. Extension staff made plans to help her develop a standard washing procedure this summer.

While the federal produce safety rule is overseen by the FDA, it will be administered in Virginia by VDACS, an arrangement approved by the General Assembly with encouragement from organizations likeVirginia Farm Bureau Federation. Extension staff will serve as a resource for growers who have questions or concerns about compliance issues.

“Virginia farmers prefer having the state oversee produce safety regulations here,” explained Tony Banks, VFBF senior assistant director of agriculture, development and innovation. “Having local state enforcement staff makes it convenient for growers and Extension staff who may have regulatory questions or need help resolving an issue. Many growers feel like state staff are more accessible.”

Goodman said farmers for whom he has conducted reviews are taking a proactive approach to the rule. “They want to know, ‘What can we work on before this takes effect? What can we fix?’” he said.

More information about the federal rule and the On-Farm Readiness Review program is available atvaproducesafety.com. Growers not yet subject to the rule can schedule a review by calling 804-786-4003.

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