COBDEN, Ill. — With the Food and Drug Administration starting required inspections this year on large food-producing farms, a couple of “large” farms volunteered for a trial inspection and allowed neighboring farm owners and managers to watch along.
Defined as a large operation which earns more than $500,000 a year, Flamm Orchards of Cobden was one of those volunteers. About a dozen others showed up on Aug. 29 to see how the process works.
“We have brought in the FDA to help walk us through what inspections on the farm will look like moving forward and allow you to ask questions and really understand the process,” explained Raghela Scuzzvo, Illinois Specialty Growers Association executive director and an Illinois Farm Bureau local foods expert.
With 22 years with the federal government alone, Theresa Klaman is an FDA inspector responsible for 12 states in the North Central Region, including Illinois and Indiana. She ran the trial run, which does indeed have an official governmentese name — a Farm Readiness Review.
She did say she’s from the government and there to help: “I’m here to help explain the rules and regulations and actually help you understand how they should be applied to the farm.”
Klaman was conversational, approachable and open to any questions. She pointed out that there’s plenty of local help in Illinois, too, through University of Illinois Extension.
Laurie George is a food safety specialist out of Mount Vernon, and she covers Southern Illinois, while her colleagues have territories throughout the state.
Prompting the inspections are changes in federal food safety laws, especially in the Food Safety Modernization Act. State and federal government officials have been offering food safety training opportunities for large-, medium- and small-sized farm operations to earn certifications beginning in 2019.
These rules and regulations apply to any produce farmer who sells fresh food to wholesalers, retailers, distributors and farmers markets.
Here some key takeaways from Klaman’s visit at Flamm’s orchard:
Recognize the importance of food safety training at all levels — “Flamm Orchards is going above and beyond many of the requirements of the produce safety requirements,” Klaman said. “They recognize the importance of training employees and giving them job specific training.”
She cited a couple of extreme, but true examples of food producers whose procedures actually created health hazards — a produce grower whose staff would cut and bundle fresh kale and then throw the bundles into the ground where the cut ends were contaminated, or a berry producer whose freshly rinsed and sanitized blueberries were stored in an open barn with multitudes of roosting wild birds and nests in the rafters directly above the storage.
Understanding water quality — While Klaman complimented Flamm’s for its water practices, she said not all producers understand that all water — ground, standing, rinse, water attracting wildlife — carry health risks which must be addressed. Regular water testing is a key element in proving water quality.
Suggested improvements in the guidebook — Certainly, these rules and regulations are many and can be complex to follow. That’s why the FDA and Extension have produced many handouts, booklets, manuals and training opportunities to make adoption of food safety measures more understandable.
A meaningful review — Any farm required to have an inspection is welcome to schedule an “off-the-record” review before any official inspection. That’s a matter of calling the FDA and scheduling an appointment.
On the other hand, when the FDA calls to schedule an official inspection they expect to reach the responsible party in a timely manner.
“It’s not like we’re going to show up at your door unannounced. We work with you. For example, I tend call in advance to explain what my schedule looks like and if we work something out,” Klaman said.
The results of an unofficial review will include recommendations for improvement and how those improvements are related to the food safety act. When it’s time for the official inspection, there’s a score sheet and points are assigned to determine what farms are successfully safe or not.
“I encourage anybody that’s coming close to inspection to actually have a Farm Readiness Review. It’s a really good idea,” Klaman said.