Employee education is fundamental to produce safe, high-quality crops. Third-party certifications and federal regulations require continuous education of everyone involved in the growing, harvesting and packing of produce.

Several organizations have been very proactive in the development of interactive training programs and educational materials that have helped the produce industry in Washington state to train workers and comply with such regulations.

However, on-site training is not always convenient due to several challenges:

—Weather conditions during the training season are not always favorable for traveling to the training site. Winter storms can affect training programs due to last-minute cancelations from participants and speakers.

—On-site workshops are most ideal for small groups, especially in cases when interaction and demonstrations are useful to achieve learning objectives. Limited space at workshops can become a problem in a big industry that is eager to learn.

—Night shifts in packing houses affect the participation of certain staff members for courses conducted during the day.

These drivers, and others, are making online education an increasingly popular option — as industries report increasing resources devoted to online workforce education, while in-person training spending continues to shrink.

Technology now allows producers to overcome these challenges through online education. Online learning can be just as effective as in-person education when accompanied with mentoring and discipline.

Here’s a look at some of the free resources that are now available for growers and packers to help with their food safety efforts.

Jacqui Gordon Nuñez, director of education at Washington Sate Tree Fruit Association in Yakima, Washington, on May 1, 2017. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)
Jacqui Gordon Nuñez

The Washington State Tree Fruit Association (WSTFA) recently launched a new training and education portal through its website, wstfa.org. This portal offers recordings of workshops, orchard and packing house training videos, and additional resources that include food safety posters and links from industry partners.

The recording of the Cleaning and Sanitation Workshop, hosted in 2018, will provide insight on best practices related to cleaning and sanitation programs to reduce food safety risks at the packing house level, with specific emphasis on Listeria monocytogenes. The video includes demonstrations on how to clean challenging areas such as drains, brushes, belts, dump tanks and sizers.

The website also contains recordings of FSMA Produce Safety Alliance Grower Trainings in English and Spanish, organized by modules.

The FSMA Produce Safety Rule requires, in section 112.22(c): “At least one supervisor or responsible party for your farm must have successfully completed food safety training at least equivalent to that received under standardized curriculum recognized as adequate by the Food and Drug Administration.

After taking the in-person course, producers can watch the recordings for a refresher on specific modules, or to train workers on their farms.

Other webinars and workshop recordings include the environmental monitoring workshop hosted in 2018, United Fresh Produce Association listeria control webinars, GFSI schemes vs. FSMA webinar, and a federal crop insurance webinar.

Producers can also find training videos in English and Spanish on WSTFA’s website.

The orchard food safety video will teach tree fruit growers and their employees about good agricultural practices, co-management of natural resources, and food safety practices in the orchard; and it also recognizes the great work growers are already doing to provide safe tree fruit.

A training video on handwashing uses statistics and data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Stop Foodborne Illness and the Global Handwashing Partnership to explain to employees both the why and how of effective handwashing.

Packing houses can also benefit from videos that teach workers the difference between cross-contamination and cross-contact, and the hygienic zones in their packing house.

The first video explains how to properly use gloves and shows how allergens can be inadvertently transferred from one food to another. The second video explains what the hygienic zones in a tree fruit warehouse are and how to identify Pathogen Environmental Monitoring Program (PEMP) zoning, with examples of zones 1 to 4.

WSTFA also developed posters for tree fruit orchards and packing houses (available at wstfa.org), designed to enhance food safety training efforts. Posters and signs are valuable training tools that will remind employees to implement food safety practices at their workplace every day and are especially effective when they are placed in high-traffic areas such as restrooms or break areas.

Two posters on orchard food safety were designed to emphasize principles of worker hygiene and health during orchard operations and harvest.

FSMA’s Produce Safety Rule requires that people who conduct harvest activities are trained to recognize food safety risks that can contaminate fruit and to identify and not harvest produce that is likely to be contaminated. WSTFA’s “Good Agricultural Practices during harvest” poster will remind employees of important food safety principles while on the job.

Faith Critzer

Washington State University’s produce safety website (foodsafety.wsu.edu) went through a major refresh in 2018, with a goal of connecting growers and packers with science-based information when it comes to produce safety. Educational resources are organized by topic and can be downloaded to supplement on-farm training.

Additionally, visitors can access an interactive map of water testing labs with a breakdown of which labs conduct tests that are equivalent to section 112.151(a) for quantification of E. coli in preharvest water (e.g., irrigation and evaporative cooling) and presence/absence of E. coli in postharvest water.

The Produce Safety Alliance (PSA), led by Cornell University in partnership with the FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture, has also been intent on providing online solutions for growers as they seek to comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act’s Produce Safety Rule.

Resources can be accessed at producesafetyalliance.cornell.edu. From there you can check resources such as the interactive spreadsheet of sanitizers that have been approved for use with produce.

The PSA is also taking the mandatory PSA Grower Training online in the coming year. They are currently working through pilot testing with various stakeholders, so keep an eye out for its release.

WSTFA and WSU have continued to partner with many state and national organizations in order to provide unique training opportunities and resources for the tree fruit industry.

We would like to hear what resources could help you meet the food safety training needs for your operation. Please reach out to Jacqui Gordon (jacqui@wstfa.org) or Faith Critzer (faith.critzer@wsu.edu) to share your thoughts. •
—by Jacqui Gordon and Faith Critzer

Jacqui Gordon is the director of education and training for WSTFA. Faith Critzer is WSU’s produce safety extension specialist.