We could argue about the definition of “local” or whether you should support local foods. But, ultimately, if the phrase “Support your local farmer (or coop, or food truck, or deli, or butcher, or whatever)” resonates with you, then chances are you have devoted time, money and energy to food entrepreneurs in your community.
In light of the fact that foodborne illnesses are some of the most devastating, yet most preventable, health risks in our communities today, perhaps we should also consider supporting our local food entrepreneurs by ensuring that they have everything they need to provide the safest food possible.
These days, everyone wants to pick a side. Should your state pass raw milk legislation? Should your county expand cottage food laws? Should farmers in your community be exempt from Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rules?
In truth, safe food should not be controversial. Everyone wants to buy safe food, and everyone wants to sell safe food.
So, perhaps the best and most efficient use of our time, money and energy is to consider what noncontroversial actions we can take right now on a local level to reach the common goal of safe food. For example, here are two basically apolitical and noncontroversial ways communities can step up to support local food safety.
1. Clean up website access and streamline printed material.
Put yourself in the shoes of a beginning farmer, producer, processer, brewer, coop, food truck, restaurant, etc. Now, go find what you need to be in compliance with federal, state and county food regulations and codes.
Chances are that finding this information is a mess of outdated .pdfs, poorly worded manuals and vague “questions and answers” buried in a mess of hotlinks.
But, if food-related diseases affect tens of millions of people and kill thousands, then why are we not doing everything in our power to make food safety information as clear, accessible, straightforward, comprehensive and streamlined as possible?
Obviously, plenty of entrepreneurs have successfully navigated through the laws and information. But plenty have not. And just because a business exists does not mean it is operating to its fullest potential or even that it is in full compliance with the law (as demonstrated by frequent outbreaks and violations). Again, why not do everything we can to make compliance as simple as possible for our local food producers?
At this point, after years of outbreaks and recalls, it seems inexcusable for any state or county agency, regardless of limited resources and time, to have anything less than perfect web and print food-safety content for all scales and all types of food industries.
2. Create a central, community-specific forum for information.
Let’s say that I am a new, relatively inexperienced farmer who leases land on the outskirts of Portland, OR. Blackberry bushes line my field, so I decide to make jam, infused alcohol, syrups, or whatever value-added product Portland local foodies want to buy from me. And, in fact, selling this value-added product may keep me financially afloat this season. Where do I go for information?
Maybe I start at the Extension Service to learn how to safely can jam. But do I look at the Oregon Department of Health website, the Multnomah County website, or even a Portland municipal website to learn if I can legally sell my jam? Does it matter if I want to sell to restaurants, stores, or at the farmers market? May I can my jam at home? Or do I need a certified kitchen? What is a certified kitchen? Should I label my jam? And if I suspect that past tenants have sprayed these blackberry bushes with pesticides, can I still harvest and sell them this year? Will my landlord be liable if my jam makes someone sick?
Again, the diligent producer will find this information and sell safe blackberry jam. But a less-savvy, less-ambitious producer may cut corners and sell the jam without finding most of this information. And, before that producer’s illegal jam sales are stopped, someone could have been unnecessarily exposed to a foodborne disease.
So, perhaps we should ask our community officials to work with web designers to gather all relevant food-safety information into a single forum. Food entrepreneurs could then look to their community-specific forum to find information from Extension Services, departments of health, cottage food laws, county food-handling codes, etc. And this forum should also include links and summaries of federal food-safety information as well.
Ultimately, it is up to cities, towns, counties and communities to create these forums. While it does not make sense for a federal or state agency to undertake such region-specific projects, it does make sense for local food communities. Time and money aside, foodborne illnesses are too serious, and too preventable, to not implement a project that consists primarily of research and website organization.
Of course, no matter how well-organized and how accessible food-safety information may be, some people will still cut corners. But, right now, the incentive to avoid digging through red tape and navigating the maze of information out there is unnecessarily high for local food producers.
Update: In a recent constituent update, FDA announced a Food Code Reference System for FDA’s Food Code. This reference system may provide solutions to states and local agencies looking for streamlined, accessible information. The update states:
“The FDA Food Code – a model that has been widely adopted by state, local, tribal and territorial regulatory agencies – provides FDA’s best advice for a uniform system of provisions to address the safety and protection of food offered at retail and in food service. The food code assists food control jurisdictions at all levels of government by providing them with a scientifically sound technical and legal basis for regulating the retail and food service segment of the industry. Regulators use the FDA Food Code as a model to develop or update their own food safety rules and to be consistent with national food regulatory policy.
“The new Food Code Reference System, a searchable database that answers questions users may have about the Food Code and the application of its model regulations, will help to promote nationwide consistency and increase transparency about the Food Code.”© Food Safety News