Small-scale produce farmers are keeping a wary eye on proposed federal food safety legislation, fearful that if the final bill calls for cumbersome paperwork, high registration fees for those involved in interstate commerce, and an onerous trace-back system, they won’t be able to continue farming.

E coli sources.png“Who can be opposed to food safety,” said Steve Torok, owner of Steve’s Garden near Bellingham, Wash. “But the question is, will the measures in the bill push small farms out of business?”

The House passed H.R. 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act, on July 30, 2009. S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, cleared a Senate committee on Nov. 18, 2009, with a unanimous voice vote.  Both bills would give the Food and Drug Administration more regulatory power over the nation’s food supply and food providers.

Proponents of the bills say they don’t expect final Senate action and a conference with the House to happen until some time next year.

Torok was one of about 35 northwest Washington produce growers attending a recent workshop on Good Agricultural Practices, commonly referred to as GAPs, presented by Washington State University.

GAPs are science-based guidelines for growers and handlers to minimize the risk of pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses from getting to consumers via produce and other raw materials.

According to information provided during the GAPs workshop, several recent widely publicized outbreaks of foodborne illnesses have identified the farm, or growing area, as the source of the pathogens involved in the outbreaks.

Karen Killinger.jpgDuring a “myth-busting” portion of her presentation, WSU assistant professor Karen Killinger (pictured, left), a microbiology food scientist, told the group of produce growers that in contrast to widely held beliefs that beef is a major source of E. coli contamination, beef and produce are “neck in neck” when it comes to E. coli outbreaks.

She also pointed out that even though many people believe that large farming operations are the major source of foodborne illnesses, pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella “don’t care about scale of production.”

During an earlier GAPs workshop, Claudia Coles, manager of the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Program, said that the 2006 E. coli outbreak in spinach began on a 5-acre farm in California that was transitioning to organic. The contamination spread when the spinach was mixed in with other produce on its way to market.

In a recent letter to President Obama and members of Congress, food-safety attorney Bill Marler said that whether “the food is raw, local, organic, small farm, big farm, mass-produced or slow, if it contains E. coli O157:H7, or another pathogen, it can kill.”

The growers attending the workshop also learned that foodborne illnesses have something in common, which Killinger said can be boiled down to one word: “poop” — whether it be from animals or humans.

Richard Dougherty.jpgFor that reason, Killinger and WSU professor Richard Dougherty (pictured, left), an Extension food science specialist, emphasized that produce growers need to use good agricultural practices every step of the way. That includes making sure that irrigation and wash water are pathogen-free, compost and manure applications follow food-safety guidelines, containers are cleaned before placing food in them, and workers are trained in food-safety hygiene practices.
All of this is especially important, they said, because in the case of produce that’s eaten raw, heat can’t be used to kill the pathogens.

Despite the potential for produce to be contaminated with pathogens, Dougherty said that the silver lining in this is that the prevalence of pathogens on most foods is low, with only 1.6 percent of domestic produce harboring pathogens.

“We’re doing a pretty good job,” he said, referring to keeping pathogens from contaminating produce.

Torok, meanwhile, said he was attending the workshop because he wants to make sure the food he sells at two local farmers markets is safe.

Now retired after 35 years with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and with a B.S. degree in agronomy to his name, Torok said he has seen firsthand that “opening a Pandora’s Box of regulations” can have serious unintended consequences.

“I would hate to see statutes that would put yet another nail in the coffin for small farms,” he said.

Referring to paperwork and fees that would likely come with the legislation, Torok said “the big corporations would have the advantage.”

He also said he finds some merit in allegations made by some of the opponents of the proposed federal legislation that the large corporations are using it as a way to pressure the United States Department of Agriculture to make things tougher for smaller-scale farmers.

Torok sees some irony in this, pointing out thanot your grandfather's ecoli1.pngt demands for tighter food-safety regulations are occurring just as the nation is experiencing a resurgence of small farms, with many consumers putting their faith in the health and safety of food produced by local farmers.

Yet he also realizes that farmers, no matter the size their farm, have to make sure their food is safe when selling on the open market.

In his case, the farmers markets where he sells his produce allow vendors to sell only food that’s grown on their own farms.

“That’s a good check,” he said, referring to traceability. “It’s important that the source and reason for what went wrong can be found as quickly as possible.”

When asked what he’d like to see in the final food safety bill coming out of Congress and signed by President Obama, Torok said that instead of a one-size-fits-all approach that lumps the smaller farms in with the large corporate farms, the legislation should take a two-track approach that factors in the size of the farm or processing facility.

In addition, he’d also like to see newcomers entering farming participate in educational opportunities such as the GAPs workshop.

“Education is so important,” he said. “Farmers need to know how they can adopt good practices for their farms.”

Apple orchardist Dorie Belisle, co-owner of Bellewood Acres, said it’s especially important for small-scale produce growers to follow good agricultural practices now that many of them are selling — or gearing up to sell — their produce to schools and other institutions.

“Small farms are just as responsible to provide safe food as large ones,” she said. “But the size of the farm needs to be taken into consideration, otherwise it will put a hindrance on the profitability on our farms. Financially, we have to be able to stay in farming.”

Gail Parlatore, owner of North Fork Gardens, said that every time additional layers of bureaucracy are imposed on agriculture, some of the small farms shut down.

“It’s scary,” she said, referring to the federal legislation, although she quickly admitted she doesn’t know the details of the proposed bills. “We couldn’t exist if we had to pay too much money in fees.”

She’s also concerned about what she describes as “total control” of what farmers do on their farms, which would include how they grow and harvest their crops and what sorts of fertilizers and other inputs they use.

“If all of this happens,” she said, “I would have to stop growing produce and only grow flowers. I don’t want to have to do that.”

Dusty Williams.jpgDusty Williams (pictured, left), a small-scale organic produce grower who has been in farming for 20 years, said that industrial-sized farms and small farms are two different things.

“How many problems come out of farms my size,” he asked.

Despite his concerns about the impending legislation and its possible effects on small-scale growers, Williams said that when small-scale organic farmers complained that the paperwork and fees associated with organic certification were too onerous, the USDA made changes, such as helping with the cost of certification, that recognized the needs of smaller farms. He’s hopeful that the federal food safety legislation will follow suit.

While some of the growers at the workshop expressed concerns about the proposed legislation, they also said that their interest in learning as much as they can about good agricultural practices is fueled in large part by marketplace realities.

“The wholesalers are going to start requiring this,” Parlatore said. During a lunch break, WSU’s food-safety specialist Richard Dougherty agreed.

“Most of the growers attending these GAP workshops say that they see it coming from their wholesale customers,” he said, referring to stronger food safety standards.

On the net:
Good Agricultural Practices and a self-audit for growers and handlers