State to inspect produce farms in next few years

By Gay Griesbach - Special to Conley Media

Aug. 20, 2019

WEST BEND — An extra measure of safety is being added to Wisconsin produce farms but for many growers, several of the commonsense precautions are already in play.

The federal Produce Safety Rule establishes minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing and holding of fruits and vegetables to reduce the risk of microbial contamination.

“Our ultimate goal is to raise food safety awareness with our Wisconsin growers,” state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Outreach and Compliance Specialist Mike Mosher said. “Fortunately, we already have a community well-versed in food safety standards and practices. Wisconsin has a good reputation when it comes to food safety.”

Wisconsin ranks 11th in the nation in number of produce farms and second in number of organic produce farms.

The DATCP is hoping to complete approximately 70 inspections on farms that gross over $500,000 in annual food sales that grow apples, carrots, onions and other produce that people typically eat raw.

University of Wisconsin-Extension Produce Safety Lead Kristin Krokowski said many of the farms that have already been inspected were Amish or Plain Faith growers in western Wisconsin that sell to places like Whole Foods and Organic Valley.

A few hundred businesses with food sales between $250,000 and $500,000 will have to comply with rules for next year’s growing season and Mosher expects between 1,500 and 2,200 inspections will be performed on farms that have between $25,000 and $250,000 gross food sales in 2021.

Six areas covered in the Produce Safety Rule are water, soil, sprouts, animals, worker health, hygiene and training, and equipment, tools and buildings.

DATCP staff, supported by local UW-Extension representatives, offer no-cost onsite readiness reviews where farmers can find out what they are doing right and what they need to work on before a formal inspection.

Mosher said the DATCP is taking an “education before legislation” route, teaching growers about the rule and common sense steps they can take to comply.

“Our goal is not to put anybody out of business,” Krokowski said.

The readiness review consists of a walk-through and questions about the operation. Notes are taken but all paperwork is given to the grower and no official record is made.

In most cases, farms already comply with most parts of the law and just need to keep more detailed records of current practices, Mosher said.

Krokowski said farms that participate in readiness reviews are low on the list for inspections.

“We’ve been on the farm and know what is going on already,” she said.

On-farm reviews started last year and have continued, with individual growers requesting the service on an almost-daily basis since May or June.

“What we find most of the time is that growers are relieved. Once they have a review they find it’s not as great a burden on their operation that they had feared,” Mosher said.

Mosher said they are taking a soft approach toward implementation in order to give growers as much time as possible to prepare.

He said even after an inspection begins, if things are looking rough for the grower inspectors will switch the visit to an on-site review.

There are also grower training sessions available.

Mosher says the produce safety team, in collaboration with the UW-Extension, has sponsored more than 20 Food and Drug Administration- approved review sessions at regional locations throughout the state.

Two sessions will be held August 22 at Bushel and a Peck Orchard and Market in Chippewa Falls and September 19 at Sully’s Produce near Sturgeon Bay.

Mosher said they are working on holding similar training in southeastern Wisconsin.

Local growers are encouraged to stop by the open reviews.

More information or registration for public on-site reviews can be found online at http://safeproduce.wi.gov.