Agribusiness is a top industry in North Carolina. On January 4, 2011, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law to enable the FDA to better protect public health by strengthening the food safety system. FSMA requires baseline food safety training for most farm and food manufacturing operations. Beginning in 2016, the FSMA training has been required on a tiered level, starting with larger farms and processing facilities.
In February 2016, the Golden LEAF Board of Directors awarded N.C. State University $134,916.26 through the Open Grants Program to work with the N.C. Fresh Produce Safety Task Force and others to deliver training programs that meet the rules and requirements of the new FSMA. The FSMA has seven rules that strengthen food safety across the United States food system.
“These training sessions are required for our produce farmers and food processors to stay in business,” said Chip Simmons, Area Specialized Agent for Food Safety at N.C. State University. “The produce safety rule covers on-farm activities such as growing, harvesting, holding, and packing of fresh produce. The preventive controls rule covers food manufacturing and animal feed. Now when these businesses are inspected, the inspectors ask to see the certificates to show that they attended the federally mandated training.”
For many of the small- to medium-sized produce farmers and food processors, the training sessions were cost prohibitive but were mandatory for them to stay in business. N.C. State applied for funding from Golden LEAF to deliver training to farm businesses in North Carolina and support compliance with the new law.
To date, N.C. State’s team of 26 trainers has helped certify 1,097 produce farmers and food processors.
“Golden LEAF funding made the training a lot more affordable for the industry,” said Simmons. “It was really a godsend that Golden LEAF funded this project for all the farmers and processors that we reached. It has really given us a good jumpstart and provided a boost for growers and small food processors and manufacturers that they were not expecting.”
Food safety regulations of this nature are new to farmers, said Simmons. Prior to FSMA, growers were audited by their buyers and not the federal government.
“In addition to providing the training, we did quite a few farm visits to provide technical assistance in helping farmers and processors meet the new federal requirements,” said Simmons. “We created a series of videos to help explain parts of the rules, such as cleaning versus sanitation, particularly in the era of COVID-19. We also produced a video about irrigation water and irrigation water treatment.”
While many growers and food processors have benefited from the program, not all have completed the required training.
“We are not done,” said Simmons. “We made great progress and have gotten many North Carolina farms through the process, thanks to Golden LEAF offsetting the costs involved.”