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The U.S. Department of Agriculture is offering new insights on food safety practices and related costs of fruit and vegetable growers.

Called “Before Implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act’s Produce Rule: A Survey of U.S. Produce Growers,” the 84-page survey was conducted as part of the 2015 Fruit Chemical Use Survey and the 2016 Vegetable Chemical Use Survey. Authors of the report were Gregory Astill, Travis Minor, Linda Calvin, and Suzanne Thornsbury. 

The USDA Economic Research Service survey focused on grower activities related to food safety, including third-party audits, measured costs, personnel qualifications and training, water application and other topics.

The survey found that growers’ rates of adopting food safety practices vary by produce safety rule coverage and size.

“At the time of the survey, many growers who would be covered by the produce rule already had some food safety practices in place,” according to the study, noting that larger growers had adopted food safety practices at higher rates than smaller growers. 

“Because growers with higher sales generally operated more produce acres, the share of acres on which food safety practices were in place far exceeded the share of growers who implemented food safety practices,” the report said.

The USDA report is a “30,000-foot” view of produce safety practices that will be a helpful reference point, said Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association. The survey of growers can be repeated in the future to see what changes have occurred over time, she said.

“This shows foresight on the part of (the USDA ERS) to do this work.”

The USDA survey found that small farms have more work to do to comply with the produce safety rule than large farms.

“Even growers who engaged in a particular food safety practice may not have performed it to the specifications of the produce rule,” the report said, noting for example that some growers who tested water did not test as often as required by the produce rule.

The survey said that among covered growers who would be required to test their preharvest water, 66.1% were already testing their water in 2015 and 2016, but most were not testing as frequently as required.

The survey found that very large growers ($5 million or more in annual sales) covered by the produce rule spent about 16 times the amount on food safety practices as growers not covered by the produce rule.

In addition, the survey found that growers who had third-party food safety audits spent an average of between two to 10 times more on measured costs than growers without audits.

The survey found 63.1% of very large growers had a third-party food safety audit, compared with 29.2% of small growers, 10.7% of those with a qualified exemption, and 6.9% of growers not subject to the FSMA.

“The lower costs for those without audits indicated a probable need to implement additional food safety practices to meet the produce rule standards,” the report said.