Produce Safety in Pennsylvania: Assessing stakeholder group perceptions and educating growers

Posted: April 11, 2011

As a leading cause of foodborne illnesses, fresh fruits and vegetables have received national attention, recently highlighted by the Food Safety Modernization Act which was signed into law in early 2011 by President Obama.

Through this law, the Food and Drug Administration will establish mandatory minimum standards, called Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), based on known safety risks for the safe production and harvesting of produce. To verify compliance with GAPs, growers are expected to apply for and pass a fee-based independent, third-party audit. The Food Safety Modernization Act is the most recent example of increasing expectations for on-farm food safety practices. Prior to this public regulation, some supermarkets had already been implementing policies that required their produce suppliers to provide evidence of GAP compliance as a condition of purchase.

While assuring a safer food system is important, concerns have arisen that mandatory audits place unfair financial and time burdens on medium and small-sized growers, which best defines the majority of Pennsylvania fruit and vegetable growers. The fear is that grower inability to comply with GAP audit requirements will limit their market options, and in turn, decrease the viability of smaller-scale farming as a livelihood.

In anticipation of the difficulties for Pennsylvania small and medium-sized growers, researchers and Extension specialists in the Departments of Agricultural & Extension Education and Food Science have implemented a project, funded by Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NE-SARE), to develop educational programming to help Pennsylvania growers prepare for GAP audits. To do so, the project operates from the understanding that different actors in the food system – growers, supermarkets, and consumers, to name a few - have different needs and interests, which need to be assessed for Extension to best develop relevant training and resources. Through surveys, the project has documented the perspectives of Pennsylvania growers, supermarkets, and consumers.

Tobin Figure 1
Figure 1. Current and Anticipated Supermarket GAP Policies (2009 and 2012).

As expected, perceptions of produce safety differ among stakeholder groups. Supermarkets, for example, are interested in implementing food safety policies to reduce the risk of foodborne contamination, protect their reputations, and increase consumer loyalty. To better understand the supermarket perspective, 28 major supermarket chains in Pennsylvania were invited to participate in an online survey. Of those 28, 15 chains, collectively owning an estimated 606 supermarket stores statewide, responded for a response rate of 54%. The findings indicate that supermarkets are likely to increasingly implement more rigorous food safety requirements for their fresh produce suppliers (Figure 1), but also want to continue to purchase local produce.

Supermarkets’ ability to continue to purchase local produce, in part, depends on grower adoption of GAP audit requirements. To understand the grower perspective, the project invited growers who had participated in GAP workshops to respond to a survey in Fall 2009. Of the 282 surveys mailed, 156 were returned by growers for a 55% response rate. Initial data analysis indicates that growers with fewer resources are less likely to continue to sell to supermarkets. For example, among the 62 growers whose gross farm sales in 2008 were less than $99,999, 42% were not likely to continue to sell their produce to supermarkets. However, among the 59 growers whose gross farm sales in 2008 were more than $100,000, only 12% were not likely to continue to sell to supermarkets (Figure 2).

Tobin Figure 2
Figure 2. % of Growers Likely to Continue to Supermarkets by Income Group

Consumer perceptions somewhat reflect the supermarket perspective, in that consumers want a safer food system and are also interested in purchasing more local produce. The results of a telephone survey conducted in Spring 2009 of 604 randomly sampled Pennsylvania consumers across the state indicate a high degree of concern regarding fresh produce safety.  On a scale measuring the importance consumers place on the issue of fresh fruit and vegetable safety in the United States (from 6=unimportant to 42=important), the mean score was 39. In terms of local food, the survey results show that on a scale measuring likelihood of purchasing local (from 6=very unlikely to 42=very likely), the mean score was also 39.

Collectively, the perspectives of growers, supermarkets, and consumers portray the complexity of produce safety. For supermarkets to listen to consumer demand and provide both a safer food supply and more local produce, they will need to continue to implement more rigorous food safety policies and purchase from local producers. This, however, assumes that Pennsylvania produce growers will meet the demands of GAP audits and maintain supermarkets as clients. To help produce growers maintain all of their market outlet options, Extension has developed and delivered GAP educational programming and materials to produce growers. By Summer 2011, more than 12 training sessions will have already been delivered throughout the state. During this process of delivering educational programming, the survey results that have been collected from growers, consumers, and supermarkets have allowed Extension to tailor its educational programming to reflect the needs and interests of all of these critical stakeholder groups.

The issue of food safety is one that quickly changes. New instances of outbreaks of foodborne illnesses continue to occur with regularity.  Furthermore, the Food Safety Modernization Act will exert its own influence during its implementation. Therefore, continuing to assess the practices, experiences, attitudes, and perspectives of critical stakeholder groups will help Extension serve as a trusted educational source for food safety, and in turn, help Pennsylvania growers maintain their financial viability.

By Daniel Tobin, Graduate Student, Department of Agricultural and Extension Education