COLLEGE PARK, Md. — About half of all foreign farms supplying produce to the U.S. and inspected by the Food and Drug Administration in recent years have had a written food safety plan, and nearly all had worker hygiene training in place.
Those were two facts revealed in an Oct. 5 presentation given by Crystal McKenna, produce safety specialist at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, spoke about foreign producers at a workshop Oct. 5 during the United Fresh Produce Association’s Washington Public Policy Conference.
McKenna reviewed the results of 39 foreign farm inspections conducted by the FDA since 2006. She said the firms were not selected randomly for inspection; the agency makes no claim that the results are representative.
In her presentation, she noted that the FDA performs farm inspections both in the U.S. and in foreign countries. McKenna said she chose to report on the foreign inspections because they fall under the jurisdiction of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, while the domestic inspections are overseen by the FDA’s five district offices in the Pacific, Southwest, Southeast, Central and Northeast regions.
“We have an emerging interest in foreign farm inspections and I think the trend is going to increase,” she said.
In 2006, with the beginning of the leafy greens initiative and the tomatoes initiative, the FDA began to conduct more farm inspections. The FDA used several criteria to select foreign farms to inspect, including entry data, whether or not a product was previously linked to a food borne illness, the volume of the commodity and results from previous inspections in foreign countries.
“Currently we are using computers to select 70% of the farms we inspect,” she said.
FDA conducted inspections of foreign farms producing 22 different commodities, including asparagus, bananas, bell peppers, cantaloupes, green onions, mangoes, tomatoes, watermelon and other commodities.
“The good news is that 19 out of 39 had a written food safety plan,” McKenna said. “That shows people are thinking about good agricultural practices.”
However, only one out of 39 had a policy relating to flooding in place, she said.
Meanwhile, the FDA inspections of foreign farms found that 18 out of 35 farms used ground water exclusively, while eight of 35 used river water and three used reservoir water. Six out used a combination of well and surface water.
McKenna said that 31 farms of 35 farms inspected tested their water.
Meanwhile, she said that six of 39 farms used animal manure on their fields, with four using cow manure and two using either horse, sheep or goat manure. Five of six farms who used manure composted and only one reported testing manure.
“Some of them didn’t know the microbial quality of their soil amendments,” she said McKenna said 33 or 34 farms had worker training relating to hygiene, and 26 of 39 monitored employee hand washing.
At one farm, human feces was observed in a field, she said.
Foreign inspections showed 14 out of 39 farms had farm or domestic animals in or in the vicinity of the field, but only two out of 39 used animals in the field. Four out of 39 had commercial feedlots in the vicinity, McKenna said.
Dave Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology at United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., said he would have liked to hear about the domestic farm inspections as well. “I don’t know if they would have been much different at all, but I just don’t know,” Gombas said.
McKenna said in an e-mail that the FDA has no position on the relative safety of foreign grown versus domestically grown produce. She said there are good and bad examples on each side.