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New produce-safety program gets $1.15 million to help farmers comply with new regulations

This year for the first time, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is developing national food safety standards for fruit and vegetable farmers. A new National Good Agricultural Practices Program at Cornell's New York Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva will help farmers navigate the new regulations with a $1.15 million grant over three years.

In the past decade, disease outbreaks caused by fresh fruits and vegetables have triggered consumer mistrust and cost the United States more than $152 billion annually in health care and lost productivity. The FDA's new standards will help ensure that producers have methods to grow, pack and market fruits and vegetables safely. The FDA is establishing the Produce Safety Alliance in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the new Cornell program.

Senior Extension Associate Elizabeth Bihn, the Produce Safety Alliance project director, explains that training in good agricultural practices or "GAPs" can help growers minimize the risk of contamination by identifying potential contamination culprits from water, workers, manure, transportation and packing. "We don't yet know exactly what will be required of growers, but the fundamentals of GAPs haven't changed. Farmers need to understand the risks, implement practices to reduce risks, and develop a farm food safety plan."

The Produce Safety Alliance will build on existing programming offered by the National GAPs program, which has been based at Cornell since 1999. Bihn, along with collaborators in 28 states, offers educational and training resources in diverse languages and formats, including online courses, workshops for farmers, videos, posters, self-assessments and even comic book-like "foto-novellas."

"Since its inception, the National GAPs Program at Cornell University has built a robust network with land-grant universities across the nation," says James R. Gorny, senior adviser for produce safety at the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "This USDA grant and the dedicated work of National GAPs Program staff have laid a foundation that FDA believes is well positioned to provide critical on-farm food safety knowledge to grower and shippers."

When the new regulations are announced, the Produce Safety Alliance will launch new courses for growers and trainers, such as food safety specialists and extension educators, who will work directly with the producers and packers. Of particular importance is ensuring that small-scale producers and packers don't get left behind, notes Bihn.

"We want to keep New York farmers ahead of the curve. Farmers who are interested in learning about GAPs and developing their own farm food safety plan before the rollout of the new regulations can attend one of our upcoming GAPs workshops, including our next training in Canandaigua Feb. 8-9," says Bihn. The training is jointly sponsored by Cornell Cooperative Extension, the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets and the National GAPs program and will be held at the Ontario County Cooperative Extension office in Canandaigua.

Amanda Garris is a freelance writer based in Geneva.

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