NC State Extension Publications


The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that roughly 128,000 Americans become hospitalized and 3000 die each year from foodborne illnesses. These statistics, along with well-publicized articles in the news media, have raised public awareness of foodborne contamination and food recalls. While most foodborne outbreaks are associated with food items other than caneberries, fresh produce has and continues to be one of the leading commodity groups associated with foodborne illnesses. This is primarily because fresh produce is generally consumed raw. Microbial contamination tends to be sporadic, and difficult to detect and control in the farm-to-plate continuum. Because of this, it is imperative that producers focus on controlling microbial contamination on farms, promoting public health, and avoiding significant financial losses from food illnesses or recalls associated with produce from their farm.

Food safety practices that can be implemented on farms to prevent microbial contamination of commodities are generally referred to as Good Agricultural Practices, or GAPs. These practices include worker training on health status and personal hygiene, along with more specific practices related to their job duties on the farm. In addition, GAP practices also aim to document all inputs to commodities grown on farms that include soil amendments, particularly those of animal origin, which may contain microbial pathogens such as untreated animal manures. Records should document all treated soil amendments, such as commercial fertilizers, and treated biological soil amendments, such as compost. Other GAP practices focus on monitoring and implementing strategies for controlling access by domesticated and wild animals that may come near the fresh produce growing and handling areas. The purpose is preventing any fecal matter from the animals coming into contact with the commodity. A final factor that must be considered is water — any water used to irrigate, water used during the harvest and handling, and water used in the post-harvest farm environment.

Finally, GAP practices must include proper cleaning and sanitation of any surfaces, termed “food-contact” surfaces, on which the produce comes into contact during harvest activities and prior to the commodity leaving the farm. For information specific to caneberries, refer to the factsheet: Good Agricultural Practices for the Production of Strawberry, Raspberry, Blackberry, and Blueberry (PDF, 407 KB). Implementing GAPs on farms will help to minimize microbial contamination to farm products and any resulting food safety hazards.

There are two primary reasons for implementing food safety practices on farms today: buyer-required food safety audits and a new federal food safety regulation, known as the Food Safety Modernization Act. The practices that growers implement on farms are the same for both reasons and are based on GAP practices. A third-party audit can be stipulated by a particular buyer for buying and marketing fresh produce from a farm. There are a variety of audits that buyers may require. If an audit is a requirement, it is important to communicate with the buyer to determine what they require. Most audits require a farm to develop a food safety plan in which the farm documents the on-farm practices that they implement to promote food safety. The grower would contact an appropriate auditing company that would review the food safety plan, and then visit the farm to observe the GAP practices. This information is then submitted to the certification body, which would issue a “GAP certificate.” That certificate is forwarded to the buyer who can then open a line of business with the farm. One of the common items that buyers might ask about is the USDA Harmonized GAP standard. More information on GAP practices and how a farm can become certified is found at the NC Cooperative Extension Service’s Good Agricultural Practices web page.

All farms must comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). This legislation, signed in 2011 by President Obama with the goal of developing an integrated food system in the United States that would move from being a “reactive” system to a more “proactive” system, aims to reduce the number of foodborne illnesses in the United States. The US Food and Drug Association (FDA) worked to develop a comprehensive, complimentary series of rules for meeting the objectives in the FSMA that include all foods consumed by Americans and produced either domestically or abroad. Specifically, the FSMA Produce Safety Rule (PSR) applies to practices that should be implemented on fresh produce farms according to the GAP principles.

Most provisions of the PSR are now final, and farms of all sizes may be subject to inspection. Farm size is determined by the dollar value of produce sales as an average based on the previous three years. All farms growing a covered commodity with average sales above $25,000 (adjusted annually for inflation) are subject to inspection either by the FDA or by the produce safety program within their state (most are in the state Departments of Agriculture). Farms with average sales above $25,000 but below $500,000 (adjusted for inflation) may be eligible for a “Qualified Exemption” based on who buys the majority of their produce. Growers can use the FDA “coverages and exemptions/exclusions” flowchart (PDF, 57.8 KB) to better understand if they are covered by the FSMA PSR. If covered by the FSMA PSR and subject to inspection, information about farm inspections can be found on the FDA’s “What to Expect of a Regulatory Inspection”: Informational Handout for Farmers (PDF, 143 KB). More information about the FSMA PSR and additional resources can be found at the NC State University Fresh Produce Safety website under the FSMA tab.


Area Specialized Agent, Agriculture - Food Safety
Horticultural Science

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Publication date: Feb. 23, 2023

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