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Creating a Food Safety Plan for Local Growers

The popularity of farmers markets and direct farm-to-market sales, such as Community Supported Agriculture, is growing nationwide. The mission of the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is to “strengthen local and regional food systems.”

It’s working. According to the USDA, the numbers of farmers markets across the country have more than tripled in the last 15 years. Community Supported Agriculture operations, CSAs, have grown from two in 1986 to more than 4,000. The National Restaurant Association declared “locally sourced meats and seafood” and “locally grown” produce as the two biggest trends in 2011.  

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Correspondingly, there are new opportunities for farmers wanting to join this growing marketplace either through direct marketing such as CSAs and farmers markets or by engaging in business with wholesale marketers that supply grocery stores, restaurants, and other food retailers. These choices offer economic sustainability for rural communities as a higher share of the food dollar stays in the community. This money circulates with a multiplier effect, creating new jobs and greater economic benefits for the region.

While there is a clear demand for local food, there may also be some misconceptions. Many consumers think that small scale production is safer than large scale or processed food.  Many think that local food purchased from their farmer or at their grocery store is safer by virtue of being local. While scale might affect the scope and response if a food safety outbreak or recall were to occur, small scale or even organic production is not necessarily safer when it comes to potential risk from foodborne pathogens.  

“Pathogens that make people sick don’t differentiate between small and large operations,” says Will Daniels, vice president of Food Safety for Earthbound Farm and chair of the Technical Advisory Team of the On-Farm Food Safety Project. Food safety from a grower’s perspective, urges Daniels, is about identifying risks, creating a food safety plan, and following that individualized food safety plan every day.

“Having an inspection and being certified does not guarantee that you are safe,” Daniels recently told a webinar audience.  “The inspection and audit process is a snapshot in time, it’s really what you are doing the other 364 days of the year that count.”

Toward that end, FamilyFarmed.org created the On-Farm Food Safety Project, one of what were dubbed “two revolutionary tools for beginning farmers” presented by the National Good Food Network at a webinar on Nov. 17, 2011.

As John Slama, president of FamilyFarmed.org, explains, about two years ago he was at a seminar teaching farmers about creating food safety plans and other aspects of selling to wholesale markets. While discussing Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification through the USDA, he talked about needing a food safety manual for a certifier to score on a farm visit.

As he describes it, “I looked into the audience and saw a look of terror.” Farmers thought they had to write a food safety book.  “At this point,” Slama continued, “we realized we had a bit of a problem, that the food safety manual and the technical skills necessary to create it were a real issue.”  From this realization, the On-Farm Food Safety Project was born.

Many groups, including representatives from both big produce and small produce alike, came together under the direction of FamilyFarmed.org to create the project. The USDA Risk Management Agency and industry sponsors funded the effort. Independently, United Fresh Produce Association harmonized multiple GAP and international food safety standards, creating a single standard. FamilyFarmed.org used that standard to develop the On-Farm Food Safety Project tool.

Users can access the free tool at OnFarmFoodSafetyProject.org. The website has two components. Educational information coupled with farmer resources are the first part of the website, describing why and how to create an on-farm food safety plan and why and how to get food safety certified. Users will find typical audit questions, questions specific to a food safety manual, and links to help farmers improve their food safety plan. 

The second component is a food safety tool designed for easy use. Though the tool is free, registration is required. Once registered, users are taken step-by-step through the process of creating their own food safety manual. Farmers answer “yes” and “no” questions in key areas of risk that pertain to food safety. Some questions require entering text that will later appear in the written food safety plan.  The 11 areas of critical risk addressed in the food safety plan correspond to the United Fresh-harmonized GAP plan: General requirements, worker health and hygiene, previous land use and site selection, agricultural water, agricultural chemicals, animals and pest control, soil amendments and manure, field harvesting, field-to-packinghouse transportation, packinghouse activities, and final product transport.  

Each risk area includes form templates and training materials to help document food safety policies, training logs and various checklists. Slama cited, for example, worker sanitation.  When addressing that aspect of the food safety plan, the tool asks whether employees are trained in sanitation.  If the farmer answers “yes,” a sample form is produced indicating the training and date, with space for each employee to sign.

All of the documents are easily reformatted and can be adjusted to the needs of individual operations. The information provides the necessary documentation for an auditor, should the farmer pursue certification.  

If, on the other hand, a farmer answers “no” when asked whether employees are trained in sanitation, a pop-up alerts the user that this is a non-compliance issue needing attention, which will be reflected in the food safety plan.  “Any documents that are a ‘no’ “, Slama explains, “go into a section at the end of their plan that basically lets them know what they need to work on.”

Once an individualized, online manual is complete, it can be reviewed and edited later.  “At any point in time, they can go in and edit their manual, they can answer incomplete questions, and there’s a checklist of things that need to be completed.  So, this is a really good thing.  Once they’ve completed the manual, they might know they need documentation of their water testing.”  Users know what they need to finish their individualized food safety plan.

While the creators say do not want to use food safety as a competitive advantage, they acknowledge that it is a marketable program once a farmer has certification and a food safety plan in place.  A food safety plan might also help when creating a business plan for securing a loan.  

“Nobody should ignore food safety regardless of scale, profit or non-profit, regardless of crop.   It’s important that you understand the risks in your operation and what you can do to protect against those risks,” says Daniels.

Slama adds, “My sense is that a farmer can use this tool and create a plan within a few hours. It might take a little bit longer to get all the records and all that stuff together. I think it’s a really good investment in time. It’s going to lessen their risk and it’s going to create a
tool that’s going to help them and their employees follow best practices in food safety and I think those are good things for everybody.”

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Vade Donaldson is an LLM candidate at the University of Arkansas Agricultural and Food Law program in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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