According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 48 million people in the U.S. get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year from foodborne diseases. It is a public health challenge that can be preventable with proper training.
UNH Extension offers high-quality food safety educational programming and technical assistance for many audiences, including farmers. Wendy Johnecheck, Extension state specialist for food safety, explains that many producers already implement practices that support the safe production of agricultural products. “Our job is to connect with farmers and assess how additional risk management practices can be implemented into a farm’s existing business operations,” she says.
Understanding the science behind how agricultural products may be exposed to food pathogens and chemical contaminants helps guide training sessions and on-site technical assistance. While Extension specialists carry out technical visits on a range of topics, a few established and ongoing programs are worth mentioning.
Jumpstart to Farm Food Safety, a joint effort with UMaine Extension, is a year-long technical support program offered at no charge to farmers. It is specifically designed for small and medium-sized produce farms whose owners are just starting out. Extension field specialist Mary Choate visits farms to provide recommendations for food safety modifications. Together with the farmer, she helps develop a plan to improve food safety and increase the quality and shelf-life of fresh produce.
Mary came at the perfect time and was able to meet us right before the mushrooms started fruiting, which is a long process as we grow them from logs. She was wonderful with helping set up standard operating procedures for food safety with our mushrooms and she was able to give suggestions for safe ways to transport the mushrooms, along with giving tips us about making sure all sanitary procedures were in place for cleaning. I can’t thank Mary Choate and UNH Extension enough for their continued support by helping us learn so much during our mushrooming / farming adventure.”
-Tracy Dunne Breezy Woods Mushroom Farm, Warren
Some examples of changes include improved layouts for sheds where food is prepared for sale, new DIY handwash stations, upgrades to food-safe sanitizers, cleaning checklists and the creation of standard operating procedures. Sue Greene of Slopeside Farm in Lancaster says, “The Jumpstart to Farm Food Safety gave me confidence to harvest, wash and pack produce safely for all our customers.”
Meanwhile, Extension field specialist Ann Hamilton assists poultry and rabbit growers through a certification course in conjunction with NH DHHS Food Protection. It covers topics like regulations, temperature control, facilities, sanitizing and more.
New Hampshire producers can sell poultry and rabbits – up to 20,000 poultry and 1,000 rabbits per calendar year – directly to N.H. restaurants without USDA inspection if they complete Extension’s course, register with the NH Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food and recertify after five years.
Extension’s food safety team also assists farmers with navigating state and federal regulatory requirements. Whether preventing human pathogens from spreading or food from spoiling, Extension’s specialists are helping ensure a healthier food environment for the Granite State.
“Mount Sacred Heart Garden has implemented changes as a result of our collaboration with Mary Choate regarding food safety. Following her visit and evaluation, we added a food safety policy, which covers interventions to assure that the food we donate is safe for the recipients. This includes volunteers staying home when ill, covering plastic food containers between uses, washing hands with soap and water before harvesting or handling food and cleaning food workspaces with disinfectant wipes. Additionally, we have planted a nonfood cover crop as a barrier between the compost container and nearby crops.”
-Evelyn Hagan Sacred Heart Community Garden, Littleton