At the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York’s annual winter conference in Saratoga Springs, about 40 farmers and farm workers packed a small conference room for a workshop on food safety.
The session, titled “Food Safety: Best Practices for Farmers Markets and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)” was listed on the schedule in both Spanish and English, and translators interpreted for several people in the audience. Participants heard recommendations for direct selling on the farm, at farmers’ markets and through community-supported agriculture subscriptions.
“We want your farms to be safe, not just for your customers but for you, too,” Diane Eggert of the Farmers’ Market Federation of New York, told the group. “Because we don’t want you to lose revenue.”
“These recommendations are good for food safety, but they’re good marketing, too,” said Amanda Rae Root from Jefferson County Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE). “If you show that you care about food safety, that will reflect well on you.”
With funding from a USDA Agriculture Marketing Service grant, The Farmers’ Market Federation and Jefferson County CCE spent a year developing the curriculum and sought input from a committee that included Betsy Bihn, the National GAPs (Good Agricultural Practices) administrator, John Lukor from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets Food Safety Division, market managers, and other business community members with a vested interest in the success of farm retailing.
The training curriculum that resulted — Food Safety Recommendations for Farm Direct Marketing Activities — addresses food safety issues in agritourism, on farm sales, farmers markets, and CSAs and covers as many different direct marketing configurations as possible: u-pick, farm stands and farmers markets. All aspects of operations are reviewed, from storage to display; crisis communication tips are also included.
The authors say the recommendations are based on sound science, and compliant with state and federal regulations. Produce handling recommendations follow GAPs guidelines. Overall, the goal was to make the advice farmer friendly, so that people can easily incorporate the principles into their operations.
The Farmers’ Market Federation began distributing materials in December, hosting two webinars advertised on the national listserv for the Farmers Market Coalition, and other portals, such as the national eXtension website. People from surrounding states, and western and southern states, too, have participated in the webinars or shown interest in the recommendations.
Eggert and Root have also conducted workshops for extension agents in the state of New York, and plan a few more.
“We want you to use these guidelines as a tool in analyzing your own operation,” Eggert said. As an example, she said the recommendations suggest farmers markets exclude dogs. However, because markets need to look at their individual communities and do what is best for them, banning dogs might not be the best strategy in a dog-loving community.
At the workshop, talk of personal hygiene, and how consumers connect the seller to the food, naturally led to a discussion on consumer hygiene.
“How do you prevent contamination from your consumers?” asked Eggert. “You don’t want to discourage people from interacting with your food, but be vigilant. Watch your table. Watch your product. If you notice somebody with filthy hands pawing through your peppers, maybe remove the fruit and wash it.”
Other topics of discussion included tents or canopies to minimize risk from birds, and the potential for cross-contamination in locations that sell both produce and meat. Posting information for the safe handling of foods at home was also recommended.
Regarding farm stores, the recommendations state that foods should be stored off the floor, and light fixtures should be covered to protect food in case a bulb bursts.
“Look around your building and think very critically,” advised Eggert. “What are the sources of problems, and how can I minimize risk?”
Being aware of potential hazards and how to address them is the goal. Specific examples include: Don’t reuse bags from the grocery store when packing customer’s produce at the stand or stall; the bags could contaminate your goods. When packing boxes for CSA shares, segregate potentially hazardous foods, and keep boxes covered. CSA drop off locations should be protected from weather, and farmers should consider including a clause in the season’s agreement so that the customer provides a cool spot for safe delivery of food.
Bathroom facilities are an issue, especially for farmers markets. “Deny people the opportunity to use the bathroom and they’re going to leave. Especially if they have little kids,” said Eggert. So providing hand-washing stations should be a consideration.
Food sampling and cooking demonstrations are regulated at many levels, Root said, so check with local and state health departments to make sure you know what’s expected.
As far as sharing recipes and information on food preparation, Eggert noted that you assume responsibility for whatever you provide. Rather than offering advice on canning techniques, it may be best to refer customers to the Cooperative Extension service or a professional. Recipes for preparing meats should follow either state or federal safe-cooking temperature guidelines, which Eggert noted can vary.
A farmer in the audience took issue with this. He sells grass-fed meats, which he tells customers to cook to 135° F. However, the USDA says the safe cooking temperature for beef steaks and roasts is 145° F (and 160° F for ground beef.)
“Do I recommend my customers cook according to USDA, or according to how grass-fed beef should be handled?” he asked. “I lose a customer if the food is overcooked.”
“So put a disclaimer on it if you want to use that” lower temperature, Eggert replied. “But if a customer gets sick and they decide it was because of your recommendation, that comes back to you.”
One farmer expressed concern that too much of the food-safety burden falls on a producer’s shoulders, and asked, “Why should we have to tell adults to put food in the fridge?”
“These are suggestions we give you,” Eggert responded. “You’re right, we do put too much responsibility on us. Think about what you can do for yourself and your customers.”
Some participants asked if the Farmers’ Market Federation conducts informal inspections, and were referred to their local extension agents. They were told that if extension agents don’t provide the service, they could likely recommend someone who does.
People voiced fears that regulations would eventually hamper their ability to conduct business.
“Regulations are going to happen,” Eggert said, adding that the food-safety training might avoid the need for rules that are burdensome.
The Food Safety Training Curriculum is available on the website for the Farmers’ Market Federation of New York. The material is free, but a name and email address must be submitted to access it.