USDA Leaders Promote Local Food in Georgia This Week–Is Local Food Safer?

Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan visited the University of Georgia Monday to discuss the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ initiative.

The stop is part of Merrigan’s ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,’ college tour, which aims to educate “the next generation of farmers, ranchers and consumers.” The college tour has also included visits to Rutgers University and Iowa State University.

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According to the USDA, ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ is promoting a national conversation about how to develop local and regional food systems to help small and mid-sized farms and “reinvigorate” rural communities and to reconnect consumers and producers.

The initiative builds on the 2008 Farm Bill, which gives the USDA a greater ability to promote local foods. 

Consumer demand for locally grown food is expected to rise substantially–the USDA estimates the total demand for locally grown food was $4 billion in 2002 and the department is forecasting $7 billion in demand by 2012.

The USDA’s push to support growth in the small, local food sector has divided the food safety community. Some see local food as less risky–smaller farmers are close to their land, have less to manage, and offer a much shorter supply chain from farm to consumer. 

“Organic, local, and other types of sustainable agriculture has huge benefits for the environment as well as quality and safety benefits (through low or no pesticide use) to consumers,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union. “Unfortunately, a small or organic farm can be a source of pathogens in food, just like a large farm.”

Some in the food world view the burgeoning small and local food sector as less regulated and less controlled, which could allow pathogens to enter the supply chain.

“I am not convinced the recent push by consumers toward locally grown produce will necessarily solve any significant food safety issues,” said Shawn Stevens, a leading food safety lawyer who represents food companies. 

“Small and local growers face the same challenges as larger growers, but in some instances lack the resources to invest in robust food safety systems,” added Stevens. “The only real advantage may be that, to the extent that product contamination issues do arise, proportionately smaller markets and distribution areas means fewer consumers will potentially be affected.”