“Assessing Food Safety Practices Among Texas Small Growers,” recently published in the Journal of Food Protection, could set off some alarm bells.

It’s a survey of small Texas growers, most of whom are exempted under the “Tester Amendment” from the federal food safety requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The exemption is named for Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT, who in late 2010 blocked the FSMA until the small growers were excluded from the law.

Now, 10 years later, a University of Houston study has found a “significant gap” in food safety protocols and resources in place for the small growers.

According to the research abstract, the study “aimed to assess current food safety gaps among small growers in Texas to identify key areas of focus for potential education and training materials for these stakeholders.”

Small growers earn less than or equal to $25,000 in annual sales over a 3-year period and have an average food sale of less than $500,000. To this end, a survey tool was designed to determine the gaps in small farm growers’ food safety knowledge. 

The abstract said a total of 29 questions were disseminated to participants at a fruit and vegetable conference. The questions included topics such as food safety practices and perceptions, and current and past food safety training experiences. 

Data from 70 growers were collected and analyzed and the results demonstrated that more than 34 percent of growers use manure and 51 percent have domestic animals on their farm premises. 

Continuing, the abstract says: “Even though more than 51 percent of participants use bare hands for harvesting, 39 percent of growers do not provide hand-washing facilities for workers, and 46 percent of the growers do not provide toilet facilities for their workers. Only 25 percent of the growers surveyed have access to food safety training materials for their employees.” 

The results also showed that 21 percent of participants have previous food safety training. Furthermore, half of the growers surveyed used soil amendments and approximately 87 percent did not test irrigation water. About 30 percent of growers believe that organic produce is safer than conventional produce and 37 percent believe that organically grown produce has fewer harmful bacteria. 

Also, less than 41 percent of participants could not recognize the difference between hydroponically grown produce and conventional systems. The results indicated specific areas of opportunity, gaps in resources needed by growers, and a lack of food safety training materials. The results of this study will help in the design of targeted and specific food safety training materials for small growers.

The researcher conducted the survey of the 70 small growers at the 2019 fruit and vegetable conference in Rosenberg, TX. The goal is to develop training materials for growers earning less than $25,000 in annual sales.

The focus is on hand-washing and toilet facilities to prevent cross-contamination and reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses.

“There are definite gaps in their food safety knowledge, so it’s critical that we reach these small growers with robust education to make them aware of the risks associated with these practices, as well as safer alternatives,” the University of Houston’s Zahra H. Mohammad said in a news release.

The study was funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Texas Department of Agriculture.   

“Some smaller farmers simply do not have the resources of the larger farms, and since many function with 100 percent direct-to-consumer sale formats they are not encountering a supply chain that expects these regulations to be in a place like commercial operations,” Texas International Produce Association’s Dante Galeazzi, told The Packer newspaper. “The good news is the Texas farms that do provide a vast, vast majority of the fresh produce that enters the marketplace are following the rules and do have all these precautions and best practices in place.”

He also said the Texas Department of Agriculture and university partners have done extensive outreach to bring education on food safety best practices to small farms but acknowledged that “more outreach is needed.”

The Packer, which began covering the produce industry in 1893, was the first to report on the University of Houston study.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)

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