Conference focuses on food safety training for smaller growersORLANDO, Fla. — The Produce Safety Alliance has set a timeline to develop materials to help small and medium-sized growers update food safety requirements.

On June 29-30, growers, packers, trade association staff, scientists and academics discussed best ways to teach smaller growers food safety practices during the group’s first good agricultural practices education and training materials conference.

Alliance project director Betsy Bihn, senior extension associate in the Department of Food Science at Cornell University and National Good Agricultural Practices Program coordinator, said the group plans to release a curriculum draft by December and test the educational guidelines through focus groups in 2012 in four U.S. locations.

“You have to put out timelines or you flounder,” she said. “This is a work in progress and the details have not been worked out. We are really hitting the ground at a speedy pace.”

Kevin Severns, general manager of Orange Cove-Sanger Citrus Association, Orange Cove, Calif., a part of Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Sunkist Growers Inc. and treasurer of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter, said he wants educators to understand growers’ inability to attend multi-week food safety courses.

“This is not about giving assurances that their products are safe but about the unknown and the time constraints involved with all the paperwork,” he said.

Marisa Bunning, extension specialist and food safety assistant professor with Colorado State University, Fort Collins, said many growers fear audits.

“People just don’t know what an audit is,” she said. “They’re scared of it. Most of the time, 90% of what they’re doing on the farm is covered. So we talk with growers about their auditing options.”

In sessions on small and medium-sized growers, Sergio Nieto-Montenegro, a consultant with the American Mushroom Institute, Washington, D.C., and Andrew Kramer, manager of grower communications for the California Strawberry Commission, Watsonville, discussed what their respective industries are doing to educate growers on food safety practices.

Kramer said California’s strawberry industry assembled three levels of classes and is developing a fourth cycle to train the state’s harvesters on proper safety procedures.

“Most strawberry ranches already receive third-party audits,” Kramer said. “We realized we needed training materials for growers to use to train their harvest crews. We’re trying to instill a culture of food safety among the workers.”

Though the mushroom industry hasn’t reported any food safety issues, Nieto-Montenegro said the industry established GAPS through a task force of growers, regulators and scientists.

The conference attracted 125 participants.