Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 11, Issue 2 - December, 2018


Development of the Rutgers On-Farm Food Safety Team

Melendez, M. V., Agricultural Agent, Rutgers Cooperative Extension
Kline, W., Agricultural Agent, Rutgers Cooperative Extension
Matthews, J., Program Associate, Rutgers Cooperative Extension


The fresh produce industry is under increased pressure to improve their food safety practices in the U.S. Historically, food safety has been market access driven through buyer required third party audits. The Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule (FSMA PSR), which went into effect for the largest farms in the U.S. on January 26, 2018, makes food safety regulatory for fresh produce growers. Extension educators are at the core of preparing fresh produce growers for compliance. The Rutgers On-Farm Food Safety Team started as a team of one, and has evolved to provide statewide outreach by multiple county agents, extension staff and state partners. States without an established food safety team are now forming programs for statewide outreach regarding fresh produce safety in response to the FSMA PSR. These states should look to more established extension-based fresh produce safety outreach programs to gain insight into what could meet farmers' needs in their states.   


Market demands, consumer concern due to large-scale outbreaks of food-borne pathogens capturing media attention, and now federal regulation necessitates that farms be versed in food safety risks and risk reduction measures. Estimates from the USDA Economic Research Service indicate that more than 520 farms in New Jersey will need to comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule (FSMA PSR) (Bovdy,, 2018). Significantly fewer farms have participated in third party audits for Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) creating an educational need for growers on farm food safety. Through educational opportunities, technical assistance and dissemination of region-specific information farmers can better understand, and reduce, farm-specific food safety risks.

State-based extension educational programs must respond to specific farmer needs to be successful. A study conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) showed that farmers viewed Extension educators as one of the best resources for information relating to produce safety on the farm (Eggers et al., 2010).  A Pennsylvania State University Extension study showed that farmers participating in food safety education were doing so because of buyer requirements (Tobin et al., 2013). This finding mimics what the Rutgers Cooperative Extension produce safety audience looked like until the FSMA PSR became a reality.



In New Jersey, outreach to farms on the topic of USDA third-party audit compliance began in 1999 at the request of growers. Outreach was conducted statewide by one county agricultural agent, however, increasing buyer food safety requirements created additional demand for extension outreach. As the New Jersey farmer audience increased over time, because of buyer requirements and preparing for the FSMA PSR, the Rutgers On-Farm Food Safety team grew to include three full-time and two part-time staff. This expansion of team membership allowed outreach to be provided to a diversity of farms. 

The goals of the Rutgers On-Farm Food Safety program are to:

  • Collaborate with agricultural organizations in New Jersey, the region and the nation;
  • Provide certificate-based training that meets the requirements of Third-Party Audits and FSMA PSR;
  • Assess individual farms for risks and evaluate risk reduction practices through farm visits, confidential sampling and technical assistance;
  • Inform agricultural service agencies and produce buyers about appropriate risk reduction practices on farms;
  • Develop easily accessible resources to assist farms in their produce safety efforts, housed on the Rutgers On-Farm Food Safety Website;
  • Obtain grant funding to support program outreach efforts.


Collaboration and partnerships
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) third-party audits, the FSMA PSR, and our understanding of human pathogen risks on farms continue to evolve over time. To ensure that the most up-to-date information is being shared with growers, the Rutgers On-Farm Food Safety team participates in the Produce Safety Alliance (PSA) (Produduce Safety Alliance, n.d.), and the Northeast Center to Advance Food Safety (NECAFS) (Northeast Center to Advance Food Safety, n.d.). The team also participates in the On-Farm Readiness Review (OFRR) development team, a National Association of State Departments of Agriculture program designed to assess preparedness for the FSMA PSR (USDA, 2016). Participating in other agencies' educational programming is also important and the team leaders have participated in: USDA third-party auditor inspector training; Produce Safety Alliance FSMA PSR lead trainer program; Produce Safety Alliance FSMA PSR Trainer of Trainers program; Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point certification; FSMA Preventive Controls training; FDA 226 produce inspection training for regulators; and also serve as On-Farm Readiness Review trainers. 

Partnerships and collaborations with in-state agricultural organizations have allowed for a broader reach to the local agricultural audience and help establish trust with agricultural audiences. The most important relationship has been with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture (NJDA). The NJDA oversees both USDA third party audits and implementation of the FSMA PSR in New Jersey. This collaboration includes joint presentations during certificate-based workshops, partnership in grant funding, and sub-contracts for educational outreach specific to the New Jersey OFRR. The team also collaborates with the New Jersey Department of Health, New Jersey Food Safety Task Force, New Jersey Farm Bureau, Northeast Organic Farmers Association of New Jersey (NOFA NJ), Rutgers Ultra-Niche Crops for the Progressive Farmer, Annie’s Project New Jersey, and Master Gardener Train-the-Trainer program.

Certificate based trainings
Educational workshops are developed based on industry needs and grower feedback through surveys and one-on-one communication. One-day workshops focus on Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), USDA third-party audits or the FSMA PSR. These workshops are typically 7 hours long, and include hard copy and digital resource materials. Presentations are made by Extension personnel, NJDA staff and industry experts. Participants are surveyed pre- and post-workshop with a paper survey, and again after the growing season via an online survey. Full-day workshop attendees are provided a certificate of attendance, which is accepted as the required educational component of third-party audits. Full-day FSMA PSR grower trainings also serve as the required training by the FDA. Workshops are held during the winter months regionally throughout the state. Wholesale, retail, organic and blueberry focused workshops are currently conducted. Produce safety concerns can vary based on region, production philosophy (organic, certified naturally grown, no-spray, conventional), marketing method (direct vs wholesale), and harvesting method (employees, contracted, piece rate, pick-your-own). Ensuring that the educational workshops are targeting farms of all sizes is an important concept when attempting to improve produce safety in a state. An evaluation of national surveys in 2018 highlighted that Extension educational programming tends to be tailored to established farms, often missing growers classified as very small, identifying as sustainable and beginning farmers (Adalja and Lichtenber, 2018). Customizing presentations and grouping audiences by similar production practices creates for a more comfortable, conducive, learning environment.

Farm assessments
The Rutgers On-Farm Food Safety team offers walk-throughs for farms who have participated in a full-day workshop. Mock audits, required prior to a third-party audit, are conducted using the audit checklist to assess the farm's preparedness for the audit. On-farm readiness reviews are conducted in collaboration with the NJDA for farms who voluntarily sign-up for this service. Farms who do not need to comply with a third-party audit or the FSMA PSR also take advantage of a farm walk-through. During these farm visits Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) materials are used to assess current production practices and human pathogen risks. For all farm visits, technical assistance is provided to help prioritize on-farm risks.

Some farm visits include confidential sampling to assess current practices and their impact on human pathogen risks. Generic E.coli has been evaluated on lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, surface water, and post-harvest water.  ATP meters, which measure adenosine triphosphate, have been used to assess sanitation practices for product contact surfaces. ATP swabbing takes place when product sufaces are in use and again after the surfaces have been cleaned and sanitized. The ATP results are compared to assess the effectivness of the cleaning and sanitizing steps. The results of these sampling events are shared with individual growers to improve upon or validate what they are currently doing. 

Educating non-farmer audiences
New Jersey farmers receive assistance or participate in programs from a number of state and federal agencies.  These agencies often recommend changes to the farm environment or production practices, often having a food safety impact at the farm. The Rutgers On-Farm Food Safety team members have provided educational programming focusing on the FSMA PSR to the Natural Resource Conservation Service New Jersey, the New Jersey Association of Food Protection and the leadership development program of the Eastern Produce Council. The focus of this outreach is to inform these groups of the federal requirements so that they can be considered when their outreach potentially impacts produce safety at the farm.

Educational resources
As the regulations and buyer requirements change over time it is important that timely information is easily available to the produce industry. The Rutgers On-Farm Food Safety website, created in 2017, is accessible for growers, buyers and regulatory agencies. This website provides information on upcoming workshops, links to current FDA produce safety documents, USDA third party audit resources, Rutgers produce safety fact sheets, sample forms, curriculum materials, presentations and additional resources.

Grant funding has been necessary to offset the costs of hiring part-time staff, conducting full day trainings, providing grower support resources, conducting farm visits, and offering farm risk assessment sampling. Funding has been obtained from several sources including: USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant, USDA Extension Risk Management Education, USDA Specialty Crops Research Initiative, NJDA Cap Grant contract, and the Philip Alampi Memorial Fund.


Results and Discussion

Program methods have evolved with changing market demands, consumer demands and requests by fresh produce growers. As the program has evolved over time its involvement on the regional and national level has also evolved, broadening the scope of its impact. Resources have been gleaned but also shared, and in the end the program better serves its audience due to the scope of communication from individual farmers, the industry, other Extension programs, and state and federal organizations.

Collaboration and partnerships
Partnerships with other organizations have allowed the team to reach a larger audience in the state and nation.  Within New Jersey partnering with NJ Farm Bureau, representing over 12,000 New Jersey farms, allows for greater distribution of news. Farm Bureau has advertised our programs to its membership through its weekly newsletter and reported favorably after their president had an OFRR conducted on his farm. Collaboration with the NOFA NJ organization, with over 6,000 individuals on its communication list, has allowed the team to gain trust and communicate with beginning farmers who use organic production practices. 

Participating with the Produce Safety Alliance has given our team members the opportunity for additional training and collaboration on outreach materials. As lead trainers, our team emembers have utilized the PSA FSMA PSR grower training curriculum to meet the educational requirement of the FSMA PSR. As PSA Trainer of Trainers, we have utilized the PSA lead trainer curriculum to educate 22 lead trainers representing nine states, and two countries. The North East Center to Advance Food Safety, with members from 12 states, fosters dialog about what is happening with produce safety in the region, resource development, and inter-state collaboration. 

The Rutgers On-Farm Food Safety team was invited to participate in the On-Farm Readiness Review development committee, through the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. The Development committee is comprised of seven Extension professionals from multiple land grant institutions, representatives from the FDA and USDA, and three State Departments of Agriculture. The team has been involved with seven OFRR trainings nationally, training 148 regulators and Extension staff. Participants represented 43 states, and once trained, can conduct OFRRs in their home state. 

Certificate-based training
During the 2017/2018 winter meeting season six FSMA PSA grower trainings were held in four locations with 212 participants. Four USDA audit grower trainings were held in three locations reaching an audience of 81 participants. One training program was held focusing on GAPs for small scale direct market producers, with an audience of 22. Since the finalization of the FSMA PSR in 2016, the team has had 359 individual participants complete the certificate-based training, representing 222 New Jersey farms. Resources were developed to assist producers with their food safety plans and decisions including cheat sheets on developing standard operating procedures and risk assessments. Survey responses from a 2016 online survey (n=30), showed the top five changed practices because of attending Rutgers On-Farm Food Safety team programming were: 1) worker health and hygiene training 2) equipment sanitation methods 3) water testing methods and/or frequency 4) produce packing methods 5) harvesting activities. Farmers indicated that the curriculum and teaching methods helped them to increase their knowledge of produce safety (Figure 1). When participants were asked to prioritize areas of educational needs, the farmers indicated worker health and hygiene and preharvest water quality as the greatest needs and postharvest water quality was ranked third.  


Figure 1. Survey responses from a 2016 online survey of farmers (n=30) indicating knowledge gained from participating in Rutgers food safety trainings.


Farm assessments
Since 2016, 87 farm visits have been made focusing on food safety. These farm visits covered GAPs, USDA third-party audits and the FSMA PSR. In many cases these visits were the first time the team had visited the farm. By August 1, 2018, 85 New Jersey farms had signed up for an OFRR, and over 70 OFRRs were conducted during the 2018 production season. The majority of New Jersey farms that participated in the OFRR needed none or minor improvements to meet the requirements of the FSMA PSR (Figure 2). Based on post-OFRR farm visit surveys the majority of farms needed time, technical assistance and facility upgrades to come into compliance with the regulation (Figure 3). The 2013 Pennsylvania State Extension study showed that the biggest barrier to implementation of GAPs on farms who were not previously required to comply with a third party audit was time (Tobin, 2013). In that study, one farmer was quoted as saying, regarding implementing produce safety standards, “I probably won't unless it is mandatory because I don't have the time to [do] the lengthy process.” Now that the FSMA PSR has gone into effect for the largest of farms, farm operations can no longer put off implementing GAPs.


Figure 2. Farm readiness for compliance with the FSMA PSR (n=73).



Figure 3. Needs of farms to come into compliance with the FSMA PSR (n=73).


More than 40 farms across New Jersey have participated in on-farm sampling to evaluate risk in individual production systems. This sampling included individual farm assessments of irrigation water quality, post-harvest water quality, biological soil amendment composting processes, and product contact surface cleaning and sanitation. Sampling results were shared with the growers along with technical assistance when a change in practices was warranted. A 2016 survey showed that 92% of survey respondents who participated in farm sampling (n=13) felt that sampling results were beneficial to implementing risk reduction practices on their farm.

Educational resources
The Rutgers On-Farm Food Safety Website ( has an average of 1640 unique views per month. The average visitor to the website looks at 3.6 pages with 36% of the visitors downloading content on the website. Visitors spend an average of 3 minutes 45 seconds on the website. This website has allowed the team to disseminate information to clientele more easily, and serves as an active resource 24/7. The team will continue to add resources to this webpage and utilize the webpage as both a program promotional tool and a training resource.

The Rutgers On-Farm Food Safety team provides outreach through grant funding from several sources. USDA Specialty Crop Block grants, USDA SCRI grants, local funding sources, and NJDA contracts have all been the foundation for work completed. Since 2015 the team has secured more than $500,000 to provide educational tools and collect data specific to produce safety in New Jersey. This funding has been used to provide materials during daylong workshops, cover travel expenses across the state to assist growers, cover the costs of farm sampling activities, pay for promotional materials and activities of programming, and allow for the creation of the team website. Without this continued funding the programs impact would have been greatly reduced. 

Conclusions and Recommendations

The survey results indicate that the Rutgers On-Farm Food Safety team is reaching a diverse audience of fresh producer’s growers statewide. This outreach is helping to reduce risk associated with eating fresh produce grown in NJ through the understanding of how produce can become contaminated and how to implement risk reduction measures. As local, state and federal regulations impact fresh produce growers, the Rutgers On-Farm Food Safety team will continue to provide relevant and timely outreach to support the NJ fresh produce industry.

Extension educators who are just starting to provide outreach to farmers regarding produce safety should consider the following when developing their team:


  • Educators must have an interest in produce safety;
  • Educators must have, or have the ability to, establish trust with the farmer audience;
  • Educators must have, or have the ability to, establish relationships with farm support organizations and farm service providers;
  • Educators should become members of the Produce Safety Alliance and serve as certified lead trainers;
  • Educators should attend an On-Farm Readiness Review training and partner with their state in conducting OFRRs;
  • Educators should be willing to participate in the national Extension dialog regarding fresh produce safety;
  • Educators should be willing to attend state, regional and national meetings focusing on fresh produce safety;
  • Educators should join existing fresh produce safety list-servs;
  • Educators should visit many farms to learn about their regions production practices and the associated fresh produce human pathogen risks; and
  • Educators should survey program participants and utilize survey responses in the continued development of the program.



Literature Cited

Adalja, A., and Lichtenberg, E. (2018). Implementation challenges of the food safety modernization act: Evidence from a national survey of produce growers. Food Control, Volume 89(1):62-71. 

Bovdy, J., Ferrier, P., Zhen, C. (2018) Estimated Costs for Fruit and Vegetable Producers to Comply with the FSMA Produce Safety Rule.  USDA ERS Economic Information Bulliten #195. 

Eggers, S., Ackerlund, S., Thorne, S., and Butte, G. (2010). Growers' understanding and implementation of FDA's GAPs guidance (Final Report for FDA Task Order No. 5, Contract Number HHSF223200510007I). Retrieved from:

Northeast Center to Advance Food Safety. (n.d.). Retrieved November 26, 2018 from:

Produce Safety Alliance. (n.d.) Retrieved November 26, 2018 from:

Tobin, D., Joan Thomson, J., LaBorde, L., and Radhakrishna, R. (2013). Factors affecting growers' on-farm food safety practices: Evaluation findings from Penn State Extension programming.  Food Control, Volume 33(1):73-80.

US Food and Drug Administration. (2016). FSMA Final Rule on Produce Safety. Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption