Oregon berry growers go to school for food safety, May 19 Food safety workshops this month highlight the interest in providing safe produce. When it comes to food safety, the old saying, “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch” can also apply to any fresh produce item, including berries. That’s why Oregon berry growers are getting trained so that they can, in turn, train their workers on good agricultural practices that help prevent the risk of food contamination. A series of workshops this month provided by Oregon State University and sponsored by the Oregon Blueberry Commission is part of a wider effort in the state to train on-farm workers on proper handling of fruits and vegetables– an effort wholly supported by the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “It’s important for everyone in the food system to have a good understanding of the fundamental principles of food safety,” says Stephanie Page, ODA’s Director of Food safety and Animal Health. “No one wants their food to make someone sick. Our growers are an important partner in making sure we have a strong food safety system from farm to the consumer.” Three “train-the-trainer” workshops are being offered this month by OSU Extension Plant Pathologist Luisa Santamaria, also a member of the State Board of Agriculture. The workshops are being held in the heart of Oregon’s berry production– Salem, Woodburn, and Aurora. The target audience consists of berry farm owners, managers, and others who have the responsibility of making sure good agricultural practices are observed. Santamaria focuses not only on the specific steps of preventing food safety issues, but how those who will be trained in the workshop can effectively pass along that knowledge to front line workers. “The goal is to reach every field worker with instruction on how to help prevent contamination and ensure food safety,” says Santamaria. “I want to help the growers transfer good practices for their key workers. Many of these workers don’t have a lot of education. It’s not just as simple as harvesting the crop. It involves much more and it’s all a big responsibility. It’s essential that the workers who are picking the crop understand the importance of these good practices.” Each workshop will have two sessions– one in English, the other in Spanish. The training is open to all produce growers, not just blueberry or other berry crop farmers. But the importance of grower education prompted the Oregon Blueberry Commission (OBC) to arrange for the workshops. “We recognize that food safety is a priority and that we should have zero tolerance for contaminated food,” says OBC Administrator Bryan Ostlund. “We need to make available training that helps our growers do the best job they can at keeping food safe. That includes helping work crews, largely made up of Hispanics, to make sure they all have the best information in a way that can be understood. Luisa has the expertise to reach out to our growers with presentations in both languages.” The workshops will review good agricultural practices and will provide updated resources to train other workers handling food and produce. There will also be a review of the proposed produce rule that is part of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)– the most sweeping change to the nation’s food safety laws in decades– designed to move from reacting to food illness outbreaks to preventing them. The proposed produce rule contains certain requirements for a number of growers, depending on their size and type of operation. “Whether or not a farm is covered by FSMA, it’s good for all farms to understand what’s in the produce safety rule,” says ODA’s Page. “The farm may grow big enough to be covered by the rule someday or those who buy their products may ask the farm to meet the components of the rule whether it covers them or not.” While the OBC-sponsored workshops cover some of the basic principles of food safety on the farm, the produce safety rule requires those farms that fall into coverage to participate in training from an accredited curriculum that is currently available through the Produce Safety Alliance. A list of those available trainings is available at <https://producesafetyalliance.cornell.edu>. That requirement shouldn’t detract from the value of the upcoming trainings aimed at Oregon’s berry growers. “It’s really important that everyone involved in a farm operation understands food safety and how it applies to them– whether that’s as simple as handwashing or eating out in the field where the crop is being picked,” says Page. “These train-the-trainer workshops are a great way to make sure somebody on the farm is able to communicate those principles to everyone who works on the farm operation. Those farms covered by the rule do need to understand that they will also need to eventually participate in an accredited training as well.” Other aspects of on-farm food safety go beyond worker health and hygiene. Understanding the quality of irrigation water being used and if it comes into contact with the produce, preventing domestic and wild animals from coming into growing areas, making sure manure or other biological soil amendments don’t come into contact with the produce– these are all areas in which farms and their employees should become aware. The instruction can also extend to those who pack the harvested produce. Just like a food manufacturing facility, any surfaces used to pack produce need to be clean and steps need to be taken to prevent pathogen transfer. It’s clear that the Oregon berry industry doesn’t want to sit back and wait for an outbreak of food borne illnesses to occur. “Our consumers understand the health benefits of blueberries, but we also need to do our part on the production side,” says OBC’s Ostlund. “We need to make sure that fruit with all those great health properties is delivered to consumers in the cleanest and safest possible manner, that we don’t miss a step somewhere in the process that could potentially bring a dark cloud over the industry. It’s important that our growers and workers understand best management practices and how to handle the fruit in a way that minimizes the risk of something we don’t want from happening. The industry is committed to food safety and in it for the long haul.” The proactive approach is good for the agriculture industry and ultimately good for consumers.