Researchers from North Carolina State University, in collaboration with Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University and the University of California, Davis, surveyed sweet potato growers in their respective regions to assess the industry’s food safety preparedness. Forty-one (41) sweet potato growers in six states (NC, LA, MS, AL, AR, CA) completed the survey. Three-fourths (78%) of the respondents had over 100 acres in production, and over half (59%) had 2010 gross sales exceeding $1 million. The representation of large-scale operations makes the outcome of the survey more indicative of the practices occurring on the majority of acres but not by the majority of sweet potato growers. The presence of a kill step in the preparation of sweet potatoes minimizes the overall risk of microbial foodborne illness resulting from human consumption. However, the trend toward increased consumption of raw sweet potatoes does present a potential area of concern. The majority of respondents utilize Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) to help mitigate potential food safety concerns resulting from microbial contamination and adulteration by foreign objects, such as metal, glass or rocks.
Food safety incidents in ready-to-eat (RTE) produce like spinach and bean sprouts, as well as in some processed foods like peanut butter and meat, have increased the general public’s interest in the safety of food production practices. The recent passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act by the United States Congress has elevated public interest as well.
Good Agricultural Practices, or GAPs, provide general food safety guidance on critical production steps where food safety might be compromised during the growing, harvesting, transportation and storage of crops. GAPs guidance includes water quality testing, worker hygiene protocols, crop inputs utilization and postharvest handling and transportation. Much of agriculture has adopted or is adopting GAPs as part of normal production operations.
Liability associated with the production, processing, selling or serving of food products can disrupt a company, brand or entire industry. Most medium to large food handlers selling or serving food products require that their suppliers undergo third-party audits on a regular basis to monitor compliance to their food safety and/or GAPs programs. These audit results are often shared with customers as verification of the producer’s commitment to food safety and GAPs. In fact, a majority of the sweet potato processors have begun requiring GAPs audits of their suppliers.
RTE crops present the greatest concern for microbial contamination and foodborne illness since the crop is consumed raw. For crops that are cooked or destined for intense processing involving heat or any other microbial kill step, contamination is limited to post-production handling practices by the processor or consumer. However, the trend toward increased consumption of raw sweet potatoes does present potential food safety concerns. GAPs minimize the potential for microbial contamination and adulteration by foreign objects, such as metal, glass or rocks.
The 2011 Sweet Potato Production Food Safety Needs Survey was conducted to supplement information collected during the 2010 National Sweet Potato Convention. The objective of this survey was to determine the current status of food safety issues recognized within the sweet potato industry by growers, including any buyer requirements, for food safety documentation.
Survey information is reported in aggregate form only in order to preserve the identity of all participants. Farm-specific information is not included and will not be released to individuals without an operation’s prior written permission.
Researchers from North Carolina State University (NCSU), in collaboration with Louisiana State University (LSU), Mississippi State University (MSU) and the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), were awarded a USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative grant to assess food safety needs of the sweet potato production industry.
The 2011 Sweet Potato Production Food Safety Needs Survey (Attachment 1) was developed by Diane Ducharme, NCSU, in collaboration with Drs. Jonathan Schultheis, NCSU; Tara Smith, LSU; Scott Stoddard, UC Davis; and William Burdine, MSU. The researchers surveyed growers during 2011 and 2012 state sweet potato meetings, as well as during the 2012 National Sweet Potato Convention. Also, the survey was mailed to approximately 100 members of the U.S. Sweet Potato Council located in multiple states.
A total of 41 sweet potato growers in six states (NC, LA, MS, AL, AR, CA) participated in the survey. Of those respondents, 28 were identified as farm owners, with the remainder describing themselves as farm managers, food safety coordinators or farm organizations in general.
Of the respondents, 49% were from NC and 37% from LA, two states that together account for 70% of the total number of sweet potato farms, 62% of the total acreage and 51% of total production, according to 2012 USDA sweet potato statistics. Survey results are reported according to general categories.
According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), the four largest sweet potato-producing states in 2010, based on thousand hundredweights (1,000 cwt), were NC (9,720), CA (6,390), MS (3,600) and LA (2,470). Together they represent 93% of all U.S. sweet potato production and 87% of total acreage (USDA ERS, June 2011). In this survey, those four states accounted for only 38% of the actual number of farms, indicating that much larger farms were represented relative to the remaining 28 sweet potato-producing states.
Based on the completed surveys alone, the sweet potato industry appears to be relatively proactive in the adoption of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) certification and associated practices to minimize adulteration. The results suggest that the larger operations are prepared to address many potential food safety issues. Because the more numerous small farm operations are underrepresented in the survey, an accurate assessment of their food safety preparedness cannot be determined.
As companies look at implementing fresh produce safety training, the make-up of personnel (full-time or seasonal) needs to be considered to optimize training efficiency. Training should be inclusive of both the general and job-specific risks. Training on the implementation of a company’s food safety policies, procedures and documentation should be included. Frequency of training should be consistent with the employee’s hire date – either on the hire date or before entering production areas.
The increasing importance of sustainable production to food companies can appear at conflict with fundamental food safety requirements. For instance, maintaining diverse habitats in crop production areas can lead to animal intrusion, thus creating a potential food safety hazard. Removal of vegetative buffer zones could minimize animal intrusion but negatively impact habitat and, thereby, wildlife development. Co-management strategies are being developed by federal and state agencies and universities, including the University of California, Davis (www.ucfoodsafety.ucdavis.edu), to optimize practices that support habitat development while minimizing contamination from animal intrusion. Co-management is a potential area of development in sweet potato production.
As recent updates to the Food Safety Modernization Act require that food supplies used for animal feed must be of the same food safety quality as those used for human consumption, the industry will need to watch for details on these rules when released and determine how it affects their operations.
While sweet potatoes are not categorized as a high-risk crop according to the Food Safety Modernization Act, traceability programs will require traceability within a commodity to occur within hours if needed. Electronic management of records similar to the Produce Traceability Initiative will be necessary.
This survey is intended to supplement a focus group survey conducted at the 2010 National Sweet Potato Convention to determine the current status of food safety issues recognized within the sweet potato industry by growers, including any buyer requirements, for food safety documentation. Survey information will be provided only in aggregate form to interested individuals in order to preserve the identity of all participants. Your farm-specific information will not be released to individuals without your prior written permission. Please complete the survey based on your knowledge of your operation.