New facility near Asheville will help with produce safety training and produce research

by | Aug 5, 2021

A food safety education program within NCDA&CS gained a big tool for its toolbox recently. It’s expected to help ensure that North Carolina fresh produce growers are well educated about how to safely pack and hold their produce.

On July 20, the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River hosted a grand opening for its new produce handling facility. What’s inside the newly updated building just outside Asheville will help the NCDA&CS Produce Safety Program with outreach, education, and training.

“This has been a long time in the making, so we are extremely excited as the Produce Safety Program to see this facility come to life and to be able to be used by growers, industry stakeholders, our program, N.C. State Extension – everyone – [to] collaborate to use this facility for an educational and outreach purpose,” said Sarah Cope, the outreach coordinator for the Produce Safety Program.

The Produce Safety Program runs through the Food & Drug Protection Division of NCDA&CS, and its goal is to help fresh produce growers understand and comply with the federal Produce Safety Rule. The program works with N.C. State, research stations and others to help farmers implement best practices related to produce growing, harvesting, packing, and holding safety. The program also conducts produce safety inspections to check compliance with the Produce Safety Rule.

The Produce Safety Program and N.C. State Extension offer Produce Safety Alliance Grower Training Courses with most, if not all, of the courses in a classroom setting. That can change with the new produce handling facility. The facility houses an optical produce sorting machine and a produce pack line. The equipment and building creates an educational platform for training to include more hands-on demonstrations.

“This is a new option to reach growers in a neutral area outside of their farm and come to the research station to have open conversation, [for us as the Produce Safety Program] to work through it as a supporter of agriculture,” explained program manager Chris Harris. “At the same time we are the regulators here in North Carolina, and we want to educate before and while we regulate.”

The equipment should help growers better understand how rinsing, sorting and packing equipment affects food safety, and it should help with risk assessment related to elements of the equipment or process that could lead to food-borne illness.

“We look forward to bringing growers to this packing house and helping them get to know cleaning and sanitation practices, identifying food contact surfaces, sanitary design of equipment – really that risk analysis of the equipment they’re using on their farms – so that they can take some practices and bring it back to their facilities,” Cope said.

The Produce Safety Program focuses primarily on farms that are covered by the Produce Safety Rule because they have a certain level of produce sales or meet other requirements. However, Cope and Harris believe the training can be useful for any farm operations. The equipment could still be a valuable tool for teaching growers who don’t have to meet the standards of the Produce Safety Rule. In all, Cope said she hopes the program can reach all 4,315 estimated produce farms in North Carolina.

“This area has a large amount of apple growers and tomato growers, and they will definitely benefit from having a piece of equipment like this,” Harris said. “[However,] it’s not specific to apples. It’s not specific to tomatoes. The other commodity industries do have equipment they use, and with this equipment we can convey that same learning message from here.”

To help with that effort, there is also a demonstration packing house at the Piedmont Research Station in Salisbury, and the Produce Safety Program also has a mobile pack line unit to provide some show-and-tell training about safe produce handling. This mobile pack line unit can be utilized in any of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Cope and Harris are already working with the FDA to use the Salisbury facility for a training that could attract people from North Carolina and nearby southern states. In addition to teaching growers or others in the produce industry, that training will also help teach other trainers and regulators what to cover in their own training sessions. If the training goes well in Salisbury, future FDA trainings could be held at the Mills River facility also.

Funding linked to research
The facility will also be helpful for research. In fact, N.C. State researchers began the effort to get the new optical sorter. That led to the renovation of the building and the addition of the pack line equipment. A team of 11 researchers who use the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center applied for and received funds through the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean’s Faculty Enrichment Fund for the project. Funds from a FDA Produce Safety CAP Grant, acquired through NCDA&CS, also helped to support the purchase of the new sorting line equipment in the facility.

The building was once used for trout farm research, but the N.C. Agricultural Research Service, N.C. State Extension, the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center and faculty members committed more money for the building renovation. Renovations began in the fall of 2020. The pack line was also purchased with the FDA grant money. After a few years of being housed in a temporary location, the new optical sorter and the additional new equipment could move into the new facility this year. Direct and indirect investment in the 3,150 sq. ft. building totaled around $850,000.

“Being able to design certain criteria for a particular crop, whether it’s size, color, weight of a particular fruit, diameter, or whether it’s external blemishes of that fruit, and being able to do that in a very quantitative way at a rate of up to 600 fruits per minute running through that line – that’s where this has had a very powerful impact on our research capability,” said station superintendent Jeff Chandler.

For example, the optical sorter can quickly determine the size of hundreds of apples as they pass through, and it can quantify just how much redness is visible on the outside. Those are just two characteristics researchers may test as they gather data on possible ways to make improvements to North Carolina apple production. The sorter makes their measurements faster and more precise, which results in more accurate results in the research.

This project was supported by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award U18FD005905 totaling $847,374.34 with 42 percentage or $361,688.49 funded by FDA/HHS and 58 percentage or $485,685.85 funded by non-government source(s). The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by FDA/HHS, or the U.S. Government.