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New Jersey Department of Agriculture has strong commitment to food safety

By
Keith Loria

The New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s division of marketing and development is one of the leaders in the United States in implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule.

In fact, the department has conducted 225 on-farm inspections and 95 on-farm readiness reviews so far this year.

“The department also performs USDA GAP/GHP, Harmonized, and Harmonized Plus audits. These audits review food-safety plans, records, documentation, procedures and practices of farms, storages, and distribution centers of fresh produce,” said NJDA Secretary Douglas Fisher.

Chris Kleinguenther (right) during a farm safety inspection last year.
Chris Kleinguenther (right) during a farm safety inspection last year.

“In any year, the department performs over 300 audits and inspections throughout the state,” he said.

The NJDA, in cooperation with Rutgers Cooperative Extension, The Northeast Center for Advanced Food Safety, FDA, and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, continues to develop educational and outreach programs to educate the produce industry on food safety.

“We continue to administer programs to assist the industry in implementing a food safety culture, rather than just meeting requirements of laws and standards,” Fisher said. “Food safety is an important mission for the NJDA because it is our responsibility to ensure the food supply — and all the different players within it — are operating in a safe and legal manner. This also bolsters the ability for New Jersey products to be marketed as healthy, and more importantly, safe.”

The world of food safety though is constantly evolving. At times, Fisher said, it is a challenge to be able to match the pace of rapidly changing — and sometimes competing —schools of thought.

Through cooperative agreements with FDA and USDA, the program is managed by Christian Kleinguenther, bureau chief of inspection and enforcement. Compliance is met through inspections and audits of food-safety programs, ensuring clients meet federal regulations.

New Jersey has a great deal of farms participating in on-farm food safety and many farms have been involved in some version of a documented program for decades.

“These farms have realized the benefit not only to health, but to the business end of marketing their products,” Fisher said. “So, the challenge is to those who have waited until FSMA became law. Now that the Produce Safety Rule is fully implemented, training and educating non-compliant farms keeps our team busy year-round.”

Thankfully, COVID-19 did not really impact the NJDA Food Safety Program.

“We continued to provide educational and outreach efforts virtually,” Fisher said. “We also performed on-site inspections and inspections as usual, with proper safety protocols in the form of PPE and social distancing in place.”

The NJDA preaches an “educate while we regulate” method when it comes to dealing with potentially problematic issues in the growing community. If the issue is a direct risk to public health, a non-compliance can be issued and can be turned over to the FDA or Department of Health.

“The NJDA also has a written recall program in place as well as a working relationship with the New Jersey Department of Health in the event that a food-safety issue occurs,” Fisher said. “The written recall plan can be distributed to growers with points of contact if they have an issue or suspect a food safety issue to be present.”

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