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Two Apolitical Ways to Support Local Food Safety

Opinion

You’ve heard it before: “Support your local farmer,” “Eat local,” “Buy local,” etc. But have you heard the term “Support local food safety?”

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Chances are that finding this information is a mess of outdated .pdfs, poorly worded manuals and vague “questions and answers” buried in a mess of hotlinks.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
  • farmber

    Sharing knowledge and information is good — but let’s not forget farmer training. An ounce of food safety training is worth a ton of inappropriate regulations, convoluted compliances and prodigious paperwork.

    And to be effective this training must come via their trusted farming organizations — not just the top down variety from institutions. Nothing beats on-farm workshops organized by farming organizations where farmers get to see and share appropriate state-of-the-art food safety methods from their peers, perhaps in conjunction with extension expertise. For beginning farmers especially this type of hands-on training is invaluable.

    A well-funded competitive grants program, explicitly open to grassroots NGOs, is clearly called for.

    Underscoring its importance, the Stabenow amendment called for training in FSMA but Congress never attached any funding. For FY 2015 the Administration has called for such training but thus far Appropriators have yet to put up any funding. While deeply involved in their regulations re-write, FDA also seems to understand the cost/benefits of farmer training and there are indications they are prepared to help make it happen.

    And who knows maybe even well-heeled advocacy groups who pushed for severe farmer regulations as a “necessary evil” in the first round of proposed regulations will be prompted to put their (consumer’s) money where their mouth is and make a real contribution to insuring real food safety practices on the farm.

  • randy

    I agree with most of your comments and thank you for them, but there are a couple of points that need to be addressed.
    First off, food is not safe! Never has been. That is why we have food safety, recalls and unfortuantely illnesses caused by food. Until we accept that food presents certain dangers and hazards, we will continue to chase our tail on how best to communicate the information. People will not believe or follow the information unless they believe there is an actual risk to avoid. Every time we say “Safe Food” or claim “Food is Safe”, we are basically telling people there is nothing to worry about.
    Second, most if not all information is cryptic. In other words, the reader can see what is required, can know what is required, but has absolutely no knowledge as to why it is required. Knowing why we do something allows us to identify the actual hazard. This in turn allows us to comprehend the real potential for risk. This understanding is required to perform proper risk assessments and to effeciently set up controls that address the true problem. The “why” used to be a very important part of food safety programs many years ago, but it appears to have all but disappeared. Now, most people only know it is required by law, when they should know why it is the right thing to do.
    Thirdly, ” a less-savy, less ambitious producer” will never voluntarily comply no matter how well information is communicated. That would be akin to asking the mafia to stop robbing people. However, it would be of tue value to those who do not know, but want to improve. And it is these people we should devote time and enery to.
    Forth, who gets to decide what should be available and what is not? Government? Science? Public Health? Joe blow from down the street? Government, science and public health do not always agree on what is best. Throw in different levels of government, different departments, different science groups and the vastly different opinions of public health and it does not appear to be that easy to decide who knows best.
    But I do agree something needs to be done.

    • MAEAP

      MAEAP does have a a volontary Food Safty Assist. Contact your local Conservation District!

  • Nice post. Lots of good thoughtful comments.

    Like you I was intrigued by FDA’s new food code reference system. Have you actually tried to use it? I did a few simple searches and it yielded nothing useful at all.

  • Raymond James

    I recall Serve Safe course in the early 1980 being a 4 to 5 day long course. Mini microbiology class. Now it is at most a 8 hour review. I do think the course book is pretty good enabling someone to read study prior to the review course and successfully pass the course and retain enough information to know why we do many of the things we do.

    I have gone back and forth thinking I needed to go into how bacteria gets on food, how it multiplies/grows in number or just keep it simple and put out a rule without going too deep into the science of why it is needed/works to keep food safer.

    I have found that many recent high school graduates do not have a understanding of microbiology that students in the 80’s had Thus you have to take more time teaching the information and cannot assume any past knowledge.

    It can be very difficult teaching food safety classes I have had College Biology Professors who wanted to work the Parish Fish Fry in the same class with 15 year olds who were going to be working a hot dog concession stand. The Professor thought I skipped over/ simplified it too much while the 15 year olds thought it was too hard to understand.

    I do think we need better access to information at all levels . Federal – FDA / USDA State and local .

    One thing I experienced when I put together a one page guidance sheet on how a producer could comply with Missouri’s Jam and Jelly law was some push back from regulators who said I should not be telling people how to comply . Only tell them where to find the rules for them to read themselves .
    Specifically they objected to me recommending that producers use New Times Roman 12 pitch when printing their labels and giving examples of labels that comply with the state requirements. Listing ingredients starting with what is the largest amount of ingredient first , putting an address or telephone number on the label.

    One thing I have noticed is that after putting that out and sharing it with local producers many producers across the state no longer have issues/ problems with their labels. As one lady said now that I understand what you want I an do this no problem.