A Look Ahead At Food Safety For Commercial Greenhouse Vegetable Production

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If you grow food in your greenhouse that is sold for consumption, food safety regulations will affect you. That was one of the take home messages from Debbie Hamrick’s (North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation) Cultivate’14 presentation on food safety for commercial greenhouse vegetable production. The bad news is food safety issues are just as likely to occur in greenhouses as in  open-field operations. The good news is ornamental greenhouse growers looking to produce vegetables may be ahead of the game because of the cultural practices they already use to grow flowers.

Make Good Agricultural Practices Your New Standard

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is a fact of life, Hamrick said, and growers need to start making the shift from detecting problems to preventing them through good agricultural practices (GAPs) like minimizing microbial contamination in water and establishing standard operating procedures for worker hygiene and sanitation.

Ornamental greenhouse growers are already using many of these practices, so they are a few steps ahead of open-field growers, Hamrick said. However, growers need to initiate these practices now if they are not already doing so. It is something they should have on their radar, even though implementation of the FSMA will be staggered.

Be Aware Of FSMA Deadlines

The FSMA deadline for re-proposed rules is August 2014. Final rules must be published by June 30, 2015 and everything must be in place by October 31, 2015.

Staggered implementation will be as follows:

  • 2017 (water provisions in 2019) – farms with more than $500,000 in food sales
  • 2018 (water provisions in 2020) – small businesses, ≤$500,000
  • 2019 (water provisions in 2021) – very small businesses, ≤$250,000

Six Pieces Of The Law You Should Know About

Hamrick identified five major components of the FSMA of which greenhouse growers need to be aware:

1. Training is required for all workers (full-time, part-time, seasonal, contracted) who supervise or handle produce covered under the law or contact food surfaces.
2. Water that comes into contact with produce or contact food surfaces must be free of microbial contaminants.
3. Biological Soil Amendments of animal origin (includes manures and composted manures) are regulated under the law, which includes requirements for treatment, application and time intervals between application and harvest.
4. Domesticated and Wild Animals, with the exception of on-farm domesticated working animals, are regulated under the law. Requirements are included for grazing and monitoring.
5. Equipment, Tools, Buildings and Sanitation are regulated under the law. Operations will be required to follow standard operating procedures for health and hygiene of workers and asked to prevent sick workers from handling produce. Regulations for tools and equipment that come into contact with produce or food contact surfaces will be included, as well as requirements for facilities.
6. Sprouts get special treatment for production under the law. Requirements will include testing of spent irrigation water for pathogens.

Some major decisions still need to be made, Hamrick said. For instance, will microgreens be regulated like sprouts in the future? What happens when farms share equipment or a packing shed? And, what to do about You-Pick farms?

A final take-home message from the presentation was that food safety problems do occur in greenhouse vegetable production, just as easily as they do in open-field operations. Hamrick said implementing GAPs and keeping accurate records are a grower’s insurance policy when problems do arise. Good recordkeeping is critical because it oftentimes helps decide if an operation is ruled out of an investigation or not. She emphasized that accountability at all levels of the agricultural environment is important to a successful food safety program.

Learn more about the FSMA with these resources:
Produce Safety Alliance, Cornell University
Canada GAP Food Safety Manual for Greenhouse Products
US Food and Drug Administration: Frequently Asked Questions about the FSMA

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