The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has awarded a $950,000, three-year grant to a consortium of 12 northeastern states and the District of Columbia to promote food safety on small and medium-sized produce farms and food processors in the region.

The consortium, called the Northeast Center to Advance Food Safety (NECAFS), and the award will be managed through the University of Vermont Extension. Chris Callahan, an agricultural engineer at UVM Extension, is project director.

NECAFS was created to consolidate the food safety training efforts for produce growers and processors in the Northeast, where wide diversity in the operations’ size and type combined with regulatory systems that differ from state to state have resulted in a patchwork of safety and education programs. 

The consortium will consolidate these efforts, helping growers and processors develop more consistent, efficient and higher quality programs in comprehensive food safety training, education and technical assistance that are compliant with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). A key part of this initiative will be grower and processor involvement and input.

The U.S. Congress passed FSMA in 2011, partly in response to the rising number of illnesses caused each year by fresh produce, which accounts for 46 percent of all foodborne illness, 38 percent of hospitalizations and six percent of deaths. FSMA directs the FDA to develop and enforce safety standards for growers of fresh produce that is typically consumed without any further cooking or processing and for FDA-regulated processed foods.

Because of high consumer demand, the Northeast produces a large volume of locally sourced fruits and vegetables, making the need for a consistent and high-quality FSMA-compliant food safety system all the more important.           

“UVM is well positioned and primed to lead this new integrated approach for food safety training,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. “This effort will help our diverse array of small and mid-sized farms throughout Vermont and across the Northeast to co-manage for food safety, conservation and environmental health across our working landscape. I am glad Congress was able to secure this initial investment for the regional centers. This key funding will ensure that Vermont farmers and food businesses, which are an important part of our economy, generating jobs in our state every year, have the tools and resources they need to prepare for the new FSMA landscape. I remain strongly committed to fighting to fund this important work on the Appropriations Committee and on the Agriculture Committee.”

“The rise in food safety incidents over the last decade is alarming,” said Tom Sullivan, president of the University of Vermont. “We applaud the FDA for putting in place a comprehensive program to address produce safety issues. It’s a great honor that UVM Extension has been chosen to host a training and education program covering one of the most populous areas of the country and one where consistent and efficient safety protocols are challenging to put in place.”      

“It’s exciting to be part of helping farms and food businesses navigate this changing landscape,” said Chris Callahan, project director. “To be part of a regionally and nationally coordinated approach is even more special. It allows us to do the job better, applying the region’s diverse expertise where it is needed most through partnership. The project team is really thrilled about the potential benefit we can deliver to stakeholders through this center and its associated network.”

To achieve its goals, NECAFS will:

  • Build collaborative capacity and competency. NECAFS will leverage existing efforts among the 12 states and the District of Columbia to enhance collective knowledge and build consensus on best practices in food safety via dedicated administration and network facilitation.
  • Foster diverse community partnerships. The consortium will rely on and incentivize a participatory structure that welcomes diverse membership and values diversity.
  • Define and educate a focused target audience. NECAFS will develop, deliver and evaluate educational programming for owners and operators of small and medium-sized produce farms, beginning farmers, socially disadvantaged farmers, small processors, or small fresh fruit and vegetable merchant wholesalers.
  • Promote national integration. The efforts of the regional center will inform and be informed by national efforts, trends and regulations.
  • Measure its progress to ensure a positive impact. Measurement of progress toward the goal is a critical objective of the regional center. It will be important to demonstrate measured impact among the network and the target audience throughout the region through strong evaluation, verification and validation processes.
  • Plan for sustainability. The center will need to secure additional funding to be sustained beyond the initial three-year start-up period. This responsibility will be shared among the project directors on this proposal, future executive team members, network participants and the center administrator.

In addition to the District of Columbia, other states in NECAFS are Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia.

The project’s co-directors are Elizabeth Bihn, Cornell University; Amanda Kinchla, University of Massachusetts; Luke LaBorde, Pennsylvania State University; and Chris Walsh, University of Maryland.

Jeffrey R. Wakefield