Oregon berry growers initiate food safety training

03/22/2012 01:13:00 PM
Coral Beach

Following a deadly E. coli outbreak in July 2011 that was the result of a deer incursion in an Oregon strawberry field, growers in the state decided to take preventive measures in preparation for the 2012 season.

“We got together with the other berry commissions in the state and the California Strawberry Commission,” said Matt Unger, chairman of the Corvallis-based Oregon Strawberry Commission.

Unger, a berry grower himself and owner of Unger Farms Inc., Cornelius, Ore., said all of Oregon’s berry commissions agreed that the California commission’s efforts in the safe harvest and handling of strawberries would meet their needs.

“They’ve been working on this for several years,” Unger said. “We thought we should give our growers the same information to help them take steps toward adopting (good agricultural practices) if they didn’t already have them in place.”

Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission, said the food safety program for strawberries in the state has been in place for four years. It includes materials in English and Spanish, as well as “language-neutral” illustrations and flip charts that are used in the fields.

“Our food safety committee did an assessment in 2008-09 from seed to distribution,” O’Donnell said. “We took a lot from the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and added our own material. … Bill Keene (senior epidemiologist from the Oregon Department of Health) participated on the committee, too.”

O’Donnell said “there’s no sense in them reinventing the wheel” when the commission has the materials already.

No one agrees more with that statement than Unger. He pointed out that Oregon only ships about 1% of the fresh strawberries that California does.

He said the state’s other berry commissions, representing blueberry, raspberry and blackberry growers, all agreed it made sense to ask California to help them educate their growers.

Officials at the Oregon Department of Agriculture also agreed.

Laura Barton, the department’s trade development manager, wrote a grant application and secured money from the Specialty Crops Block Grant program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pay for licensing fees and printing costs to duplicate the California commission’s materials.

“The department is lending one of our food safety staff members to the commissions to help with the on-farm training,” Barton said. “The berry commissions are paying for the other costs of the training.”

Barton said four free training sessions are planned for late April and early May. Two are scheduled on farms in Cornelius and Jefferson, Ore., and another is scheduled at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora. The fourth training session will be in the Eugene, Ore., area, but the specific location has not been decided.

All Oregon berry growers are welcome to attend the free training, but both Barton and Unger said they particularly hope growers with small to medium-sized operations participate.

“It doesn’t matter what size grower is involved. It only takes one berry to impact the entire industry,” Barton said.

“One of the challenges we identified when we started talking about this was how to find all of the smaller growers. It’s not like there is a list,” he said.

The training sessions will be conducted in English and Spanish, Barton said, with a focus on helping field supervisors understand what field workers need to do to ensure the safest harvest.



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