By: Donald Kautter Jr. and Stephen Hughes
“We will educate before and while we regulate.”
That’s been a mantra for FDA as the rules that implement the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) have taken shape. Making sure that food producers understand the new requirements and have the knowledge they need to meet them is key to the success of this effort to prevent illnesses caused by domestic and imported foods.
However, FDA recognized early on that one size won’t fit all when it comes to training and that a variety of training options and delivery formats would be necessary to meet needs shaped by product, region, size, and other factors.
Enter the FSMA Collaborative Training Forum, convened in partnership by FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The forum is made up of the agencies, centers, associations, universities and others funded by FDA and USDA through cooperative agreements and grants to develop and deliver FSMA training. Communication between them is important to minimize overlap and improve coordination and efficiency.
The forum held its first meetings in April. Participants laid the groundwork for a vibrant collaboration that will support diverse food producers who are preparing to meet the FSMA standards.
The diversity of the food producers is matched by the diverse community of training providers. The forum includes representatives of the public-private alliances funded primarily by FDA as a resource for industry: the Produce Safety, Food Safety Preventive Controls and Sprout Safety Alliances. It also includes the National Coordination Center (NCC) and four Regional Centers that were created in a partnership between FDA and USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to provide training opportunities for farmers, small food processors, and small produce merchant wholesalers.
In addition, the National Farmers Union Foundation and the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, which entered into cooperative agreements with FDA to develop training curricula and delivery for local and tribal food producers, respectively, are among the training providers. The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, which is engaged in a cooperative agreement with FDA to plan implementation of the produce safety rule, is also a member of the forum.
Last, but not least, there’s the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (JIFSAN), a partnership between the FDA and the University of Maryland that is focused on increasing global knowledge of effective food safety practices.
These first meetings focused on the new produce safety standards, which set science and risk-based requirements for the production of fruits and vegetables. All of these training programs are up and running, although they’re at different stages of development. But no matter where they are in this journey, they’re working together. The NCC, for example, has been coordinating with regional centers monthly and, through forum discussions, is now including those working with local and tribal food producers.
Everyone wants to measure success and to determine that they’re reaching the right audiences. Examining metrics and coordinating data will be a priority going forward so that all training providers have the same sense of what’s working and what isn’t.
Group members shared their experiences and knowledge in these first meetings. For example, a common experience has been that growers don’t use online training as much as other food producers. Lack of access to the internet or insufficient bandwidth to run the programs are the issues for some. We’ll reshape how the training is offered based on feedback as more data are collected.
This is just the beginning. There are plans to work with forum participants to post resource materials in a way that’s accessible to food producers around the world.
This is a great example of good governance – working in partnership and communicating across organizational boundaries to support those who will do the important work of strengthening our food safety system. The forum will meet every few months to help ensure that training programs meet the needs of those who must understand the new FSMA standards, no matter their size, nature, or location.
Donald Kautter Jr. is a Consumer Safety Officer in FDA’s Division of Plant Products and Beverages.
Stephen Hughes is a Team Leader in FDA’s Produce Safety Network.
They are the FDA co-leads of the FSMA Collaborative Training Forum, and partner closely with USDA to facilitate the forum.