More audits will be moving to harmonized food safety standards. This hopefully will reduce the need for multiple audits and reduce grower costs. Not all audit firms or retails will necessarily accept the harmonized audit. It is suggested that a grower work with their retailer to implement these standards, but remember who you sell to dictates the audit used.
Risk assessment will be taking a larger role in harmonized audit. This means growers will need to develop Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) to address many issues. For example, if drip irrigation is used to water trees or tomatoes that would be a lower risk than overhead irrigation and as long as it was addressed in the food safety plan it would be acceptable. Another example is the use of wood bins for bulk harvest. Wood bins would not normally be acceptable, but if a plastic bin liner is used and the procedure explained it would be compliant. This means that growers will need to carefully assess their operations and develop standards thatwill address each risk. This will give the operation more flexibility on how to address food safety concerns.
A shift is underway in the harmonized audit from having point structures to whether an operation is in compliant under each category or not. If not in compliant, but is not considered an immediate food safety risk, the question can be marked as a corrective action needed. If the auditor determines that an imminent food safety risk exists, the audit will not continue. What will be considered an imminent food safety risk may vary among auditing firms. To pass the USDA harmonized audit no question can be assessed as “Immediate Action Required”! A grower will still need 80% of the questions considered compliant to be certified under the USDA audit.
The following are examples of some that must be marked compliant in USDA audits.
1. A food safety policy shall be in place for the operation
2. The operation has designated individuals who are responsible for the food safety plan
3. A written food safety plan that addresses all potential hazards and record keeping is available for review
4. A traceability system has been developed where the box or carton can be traced one step forward and one back
5. A documented recall program, including written procedures, shall be established and a recall exercise is performed at least annually
Fruit and vegetable growers must ingrain food safety at all levels of their operation. New food safety knowledge is continually emerging that impacts the industry. This means continual changes will be needed at the grower and buyer level. Hopefully over time we will be able to pinpoint the most important area where to concentrate our efforts.
Growers who think there is no problem with their farm that it is only a West coast problem should think about what happened in Colorado with the cantaloupe and on the Delmarva with tomatoes. Any grower can have a problem with food borne pathogens. It only takes one case to put you out of business. Take time this winter to review your operation; note any changes that should be considered and work on them. You may not need a third party audit (depends on who you sell to), but everyone should have a food safety plan. There will be various meetings this winter and next spring on writing a food safety plan and how to prepare for an audit. Take the time to attend one!
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Commercial Ag Updates
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Plant & Pest Advisory > Vegetable Crops
The points of contact between Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service and the grower & business communities are the NJ County Agricultural Agents. The agents are a tremendous source of information for both new and experienced growers. Visit your local county extension office.