Rutgers Cooperative Extension faculty and staff from the Rutgers On-Farm Food Safety Program received national recognition for their efforts and are being awarded the Distinguished Team Award for 2020 for the Northeast Region from Epsilon Sigma Phi (ESP), the honorary fraternity for cooperative extension professionals. The team is led by Cumberland County agricultural agent Wesley Kline, along with Mercer County agricultural agent Meredith Melendez, and senior program coordinator Jennifer Matthews. The Distinguished Team Award is designed to recognize outstanding efforts of Extension staff teams for responding to and incorporating into a specific educational program one or more critical issues. Critical issues may be defined by local, regional, state or national need.
“Our outreach and programmatic efforts have been in support of New Jersey farmers, to see that these efforts are deemed as notable by ESP is an honor,” commented Melendez.
Production of fresh produce has been historically unregulated for microbial safety. Large scale foodborne disease outbreaks led to the industry requesting intervention from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding food safety practices on farms growing produce typically consumed raw. The Federal Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule (FSMA PSR) was signed into law in 2011. Implementation began in 2018, with an estimated 614 farms in New Jersey needing to comply with the rule.
To respond to this identified need, the Rutgers On-Farm Food Safety team was formed to provide educational outreach to New Jersey fresh produce growers. A robust educational training program focusing on a diversity of fresh produce operations is offered statewide to help maintain a viable agricultural economy in New Jersey. Full day workshops, webinars, twilight meetings, newsletters, and blog posts are used to reach a diverse farmer audience.
Outreach activities have been tailored to three types of produce growers: food safety principals for non-regulated produce growers; certificate-based training for USDA Third Party Audit compliance; and FDA approved training for compliance with the FSMA PSR. The objective of this outreach is to educate fresh produce growers on microbial risks found on their farms, provide them with the tools to reduce the identified risks and provide certificate-based training.
Since 2015 the team has held 33 certificate trainings with an audience of 1043 produce growers. These trainings provide the growers with human pathogen risk reduction best practices and the required training needed for market access and regulatory requirements. The team partners with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, the Northeast Center to Advance Food Safety, and other Extension educators and specialists from outside Universities.
The 2020 awards were originally scheduled to be bestowed at the 2020 ESP conference in Rochester, NY in October, however, the in-person conference was cancelled due to Covid-19 travel restrictions and instead is being held as a virtual conference on the same dates, October 6-8.
ESP represents extension agents in 4-H, agriculture and resource management, family and consumer health sciences, and environment and natural resources, and is dedicated to fostering standards of excellence in the Extension system and developing the Extension profession. The awards pay tribute to Extension professionals who have exhibited leadership and excellence in Extension programming.