Food safety begins on the farm


Virginia Tech's collaboration with Cornell University and North Carolina State University trains farmers in good food safety practices. Virginia Tech's collaboration with Cornell University and North Carolina State University trains farmers in good food safety practices.

While careful washing and cooking of fruits and vegetables may mitigate some of the risks of food-borne illness, studies show that the effectiveness of these steps is limited. Preventing contamination at the farm is essential to food safety.

Virginia Tech has collaborated with Cornell University and North Carolina State University to establish the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program, which trains farmers in ways to prevent pathogenic contamination of their food crops.

The program educates growers about specific handling practices that minimize the risks of food-borne pathogens in the finished product. These practices include specific techniques for field preparation, harvesting, packing and distribution, and worker hygiene. Careful documentation of proper procedures is a crucial part of the program, making it possible for farmers and distributors to “prove” the steps they have taken to ensure a safer product.

In 2007, Associate Professor and Extension Food Safety Specialist Robert Williams conducted assessments on tomato farms on Virginia’s Eastern Shore as part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Tomato Safety Initiative (TSI).

In a collaborative effort, the Food and Drug Administration, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Virginia Department of Health, and Virginia Tech assessed tomato production and handling practices with special attention to the levels of implementation of the Good Agricultural Practices programs.

Based at the Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center, the TSI group visited several tomato producers throughout all phases of production: planting, growing, and harvesting. The group also visited packinghouses and observed tomatoes being washed, sorted, and packed.

According to Williams, these visits resulted in updated procedures for the tomato industry, stronger Extension programs for fresh tomato producers, and a great deal of real-world information that can be used to inform future food-safety regulations as they are being developed.

While additional research is required, two key recommendations have already emerged from TSI.

  • First, it was shown that contaminated water plays a major role in the contamination of fresh produce. As a result, growers have increased their focus on water quality.
  • Second, the industry has refocused efforts to improve the hygiene of workers who pick and pack fresh produce, making sure that they understand that their hygiene is just as important as that of restaurant workers and retailers who may come in contact with the food down the line.

While Good Agriculture Practices remain a voluntary measure for farmers, they are increasingly important for growers seeking to bring their products to the larger market. More and more, retail grocery chains and superstores are making GAP certification a requirement, and smaller producers are seeking to band together to cover the costs of the training and audits needed for GAP certification.