Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 14, Issue 1 - June, 2021

Southeast Region Needs Assessment for a Food Safety Regulation and Certification Curriculum for Extension Agents

Laurel L. Dunn, Assistant Professor/Food Safety Extension Specialist, University of Georgia, Department of Food Science and Technology
Kevin Burkett, Extension Associate, Clemson University, Agribusiness Program Team
Camila Rodrigues, Assistant Professor and Food Safety Extension Specialist, Auburn University
Kristin Woods, Regional Extension Agent, Auburn University, Food Safety Extension Program

ABSTRACT

Extension agents throughout the southeastern United States participated in a needs assessment to gauge interest and need for a curriculum delineating food safety audits and regulations that would prepare agents for conversations with their stakeholders. Results from this survey demonstrated that the majority of extension agents had interest in attending an online course about certifications (85.7%) on topics related to The National Organic Program, the Certified Naturally Grown Program, USDA Good Agricultural Practices audits, PrimusGFS audits, and the Food Safety Modernization Act regulation. Given the variety of produce safety regulations required and voluntary certifications available, extension agents require more in-depth training to effectively engage with the growers in their territories. The findings of this survey will guide the development of an agent-specific, online training that discusses specific regulations and certifications that apply to small fruit growers in the southeast.


Introduction

 

The produce industry in the United States has suffered from significant financial losses in the past decades due to outbreaks of foodborne illness (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2018). In 2006, an outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 associated with contaminated spinach resulted in substantial economic losses and required months for the market to recover (Arnade et al., 2009; CDC, 2006). Two years later, a large outbreak occurred associated with the consumption of peppers and tomatoes contaminated by Salmonella enterica subspecies enterica serovar St. Paul (CDC, 2008). Most recently, two back-to-back years of Shiga-toxigenic E. coli outbreaks associated with romaine lettuce resulted in significant economic diminution throughout the leafy greens industry (CDC, 2019; CDC, 2020a). Because of the risks associated with fresh produce and the legal ramifications for entities involved in its distribution and sale, buyers are increasingly requiring fruit and vegetable growers to undergo third-party food safety audits. Additionally, in 2016 the Produce Safety Rule (PSR) within the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory oversight for operations that grow, harvest, pack, or hold fresh produce. With the introduction of the PSR, food safety suddenly became vernacular for farms of all sizes, not just the large operations involved in nation-wide distribution.

Around the same time, consumers began paying more attention to the environmental impact of their food choices. In 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act was passed which led to the development of a set of uniform standards for the production of organic products to be sold in the United States (US Department of Agriculture [USDA], n.d.). The resulting National Organic Program (NOP) that went into place in 2000, alleviated buyer and consumer confusion created by a patchwork of state laws and individual certifier requirements that were previously in place (Fetter & Caswell, 2002). The NOP provided a uniform set of standards around the production of livestock and crops, as well as processed foods that bear the organic label. In 2002, a group of farmers started the Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) program. The CNG program is based on the NOP, but is geared toward smaller producers that were overwhelmed by the paperwork and other requirements necessary for NOP compliance (Certified Naturally Grown [CNG], n.d.).

Currently, an abundance of curricula and certification programs are available to assist growers and packers to comply with the PSR and buyers’ requirements, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), PrimusGFS, NOP, CNG, and the regulatory requirements of the PSR. Extension educators have become the leaders in delivering a myriad of trainings and resources to farm owners and managers, which oftentimes includes addressing questions related to food safety and certification programs. However, this can be a challenge for educators with limited food safety knowledge; not only guiding growers regarding selection of the program best suited for their intended market, but also regarding implementation on farm. Extension agents in the southeast region have a vast knowledge regarding agriculture-related topics, including horticulture, plant pathology, agriculture business, and others. In addition, agents are often receiving routine training and updates in these subject areas to better assist stakeholders. However, very few agents receive comprehensive food safety training related to marketing and regulatory requirements. Also, few resources exist to specifically assist agents as they field questions surrounding audit requirements.

 

Extension educators, especially those with limited food safety backgrounds, need resources to assist the stakeholders with decisions regarding third-party audits and regulatory requirements. Given the many “hats” worn by extension agents and the vast breadth of knowledge spanning a myriad of disciplines, any resources or trainings geared towards agents must be engaging, succinct, and address their actual knowledge gaps instead of the perceived gaps assumed by specialists. In order to gauge agent interest in and the need for a comprehensive curriculum on food safety audit schemes, a survey was launched to county agriculture and family and consumer science agents and specialists throughout the southeast. The results from the survey will guide the team as they develop an online certification and regulation curriculum for extension agents and specialists.

 

Methods

The project team developed a survey to quantify extension agent need and interest to receive audit and regulation-specific training geared towards small fruit growers. The survey was administered under the conditions of the University of Georgia blanket IRB PROJECT00000044. Qualtrics Survey Software was used to administer the online survey and for preliminary data assessment. Food safety specialists and agents validated the survey’s questions for content and accuracy prior to the distribution. Questions were intended to gauge interest in participating in an online training related to certifications and regulations affecting small fruit producers, how long participants would be willing to commit to a training, and about which third-party audits or regulations participants required the most information. Additionally, respondents were asked what state they work in, their job position, and how many years they have worked in extension. The survey was distributed electronically via the National Association of County Agricultural Agents and Specialists listservs nationwide and distributed through leadership and regional experts associated with Southern Region Small Fruit Consortium in the following states: Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia. Extension agents and specialists in Florida, Tennessee, and North Carolina were also recruited on an individual basis to complete the survey and assist with survey dissemination. A follow-up reminder was sent to each individual two weeks after the first invitation to increase the response rate. Questions could be skipped, and multiple selections were allowed for some questions. Survey participants included primarily extension educators, such as county extension agents, regional extension agents, specialized area agents, county directors, and extension specialists. Survey results were reported as number of responses and corresponding percentages.           

 

Results

Demographics

The survey was distributed to approximately 1,550 individuals with a total of 258 respondents completing the survey from March 24, 2020 to April 20, 2020, with an estimated response rate of 16.6%.

            As shown in Table 1, most of the respondents were extension agents (76.0%) and state specialists (10.8%) located in the southeast U.S. (70%), including Georgia (27.1%), Virginia (8.9%), Tennessee (7.0%), Alabama (5.8%), North Carolina (5.4%), Florida (4.3%), South Carolina (4.3%), Mississippi (1.9%), and Kentucky (1.2%); 30% of respondents were from other states (Table 2). Time spent working in extension ranged from 1 to 46 years (median: 11 ± 10.6). Early career educators (1 to 10-years’ experience) represented 48% (124), mid-term career (11 to 20-years’ experience) 23% (59), and long-term career (over 20-years’ experience) 27.5% (71).

 

Table 1. Job titles of survey respondents.

Title

Number of respondents

Percentage

Extension Agent

196

76.0%

State Specialist

28

10.8%

Other

34

13.2%

Total

258

100% 

Note. Other, please specify:

 
  • county directors
   
  • program coordinators
 
  • program assistants
 
  • educators
  • business managers
   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table 2. States in which survey respondents work.

State

Number of Respondents

Percentage

Georgia

70

27.1%

Virginia

23

8.9%

Tennessee

18

7.0%

Alabama

15

5.8%

North Carolina

14

5.4%

Florida

11

4.3%

South Carolina

11

4.3%

Arkansas

8

3.1%

Louisiana

7

2.7%

Mississippi

5

1.9%

Texas

4

1.6%

Kentucky

3

1.2%

Other

69

26.7%

Total

258

100%

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Need for Online Training

When participants were asked if they had interest in attending an online course about produce certifications from which small fruit producers might benefit, 221 (85.7%) responded “yes” and 37 (14.3%) responded “no”. Respondents were also asked to rank in order of preference topics about which they received the most questions. Regardless of career length, USDA-GAPs and the FSMA ranked first, followed by the NOP and CNG (Table 3). Overall, respondents reported willingness to dedicate between 1 to 2 hours on an online course about produce certifications (Table 4).  

 

Table 3. Audit programs or regulations about which extension educators receive the most questions. Respondents were asked to rank in order of preference.

Program

Ranked Preference (Number)

Total

1st

2nd

3rd

4th

5th

6th

Overall (N = 254)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

USDA Good Agricultural Practices

61

55

33

15

2

0

166

Food Safety Modernization Act

61

47

37

16

4

0

165

National Organic Program

52

45

54

17

3

1

172

Certified Naturally Grown

31

51

24

29

10

0

145

Primus

4

7

13

8

45

4

81

Other

16

4

4

2

3

3

32

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table 4. Preferred length of time respondents were willing to dedicate to an online course about produce certifications. Respondents were asked to rank course lengths in order of preference.

Course Length (h)

Ranked Preference (Number)

Total

1st

2nd

3rd

4th

5th

6th

Overall (N = 254)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

< 1

29

11

29

1

3

1

74

1

63

49

51

1

1

0

145

2

63

69

31

1

0

0

184

4

37

51

49

3

0

0

140

8

15

25

28

3

1

0

72

>8

6

5

17

1

0

4

33

 

 

 

Discussion

Marketing is a significant challenge to farmers. This is especially true if they have difficulty navigating through numerous certifications and regulations in order to sell their products. Certification requirements vary according to market strategy, business size, farming method, and type of commodity handled in the operation. This convolutes the decision-making process and necessitates specialized assistance regarding the selection and implementation of certification programs. As an example, very small farms that have an average of gross sales under $28,075 (as of 2021, value adjusted for inflation) for the previous three years are not required to comply with the PSR (FDA, 2015); however, buyers for products grown on these farms may still require food safety certifications, including USDA GAPs (USDA, n.d.). For organic and naturally grown producers, farms need to meet the requirements of each program in order to be certified, which oftentimes creates confusion among growers regarding implementation (USDA, n.d.). Therefore, understanding different requirements that can better prepare growers for buyer requests and audit schemes is important for delineating their product marketing, especially to small growers and beginning farmers when they decide to increase their business size.

 

Extension educators are the primary communicators for continuing education on best agricultural practices to ensure the safety and quality of food production and prevent economic losses, which requires high skilled personnel to effectively conduct the job. In the southeast U.S., extension agents have a broad knowledge on agriculture related areas, but oftentimes limited background on certifications and regulatory topics. Also, there are limited resources available to provide specialized training on these programs. This needs assessment survey showed that many educators, have interest on receiving online training on produce certification programs, especially on food safety topics related to the USDA GAPs and FSMA. These data indicate that extension educators recognize a need for training and will be interested in learning more about certifications and regulations should educational materials become available. As farmers appear to have questions about the USDA GAPs as frequently as they do about the PSR, it is imperative that agents have a greater breadth of food safety knowledge when they interact with their stakeholders.

 

Cooperative extension programs provide resources to assist businesses and communities with specialized services and rely on highly qualified educators to deliver reliable and updated information to stakeholders. Therefore, knowledge gap identification is crucial for implementing new strategies to improve agent education. Food safety concerns will continue to change as food production methods advance, antibiotic resistant bacteria continue to emerge, consumer preferences fluctuate, and for other, often unforeseen, reasons (CDC, 2020b). The food safety system has already seen dramatic changes over the past few years, from sweeping regulatory reform to novel pathogen-commodity associations and has required growers and educators alike to rethink the ways they approach food safety and defense. These uncertainties will continue to drive the need for well-trained extension educators to ensure cooperative extension meets the needs of fruit and vegetable growers and protects the health of the general public.

 

 

Conclusion

The ultimate goal of an online extension training will be to provide accurate and high-quality information discussing how certifications can be leveraged to improve marketing decisions, and how to successfully guide growers to navigate the available programs. This survey identified potential knowledge gaps and topics to be addressed in a future online training certification. Once completed, the online training will have a potential to reach extension educators throughout the south and across the United States and thereby improve the opportunities for thousands of small fruit and other growers.

             

Acknowledgments

This research was funded by the Southern Region Small Fruit Consortium.

 

References

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2008, August 28). Multistate Outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul Infections Linked to Raw Produce. https://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/2008/raw-produce-8-28-2008.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, November 5). Estimates of foodborne illness in the United States. https://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/2011-foodborne-estimates.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019, January 9). Outbreak of E. coli Infections Linked to Romaine Lettuce. https://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/2018/o157h7-11-18/index.html

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020b, June 25). Challenges in Food Safety. https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/challenges/index.html

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Fetter, T.R. & Caswell. (2002). Variation in organic standards prior to the National Organic Program. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 17(2), 5-74.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. (n.d). Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) & Good Handling Practices (GHP). https://www.ams.usda.gov/services/auditing/gap-ghp

U.S. Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). National Organic Program. https://www.ams.usda.gov/about-ams/programs-offices/national-organic-program

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2015, November 27). Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2015/11/27/2015-28159/standards-for-the-growing-harvesting-packing-and-holding-of-produce-for-human-consumption