Why is it harder for a small grower to implement food safety standards? The long-running discussion over food safety as it applies to different types and sizes of farms continued Wednesday during Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on nutrition and local food.

During the hearing, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) asked supermarket giant Walmart’s Senior Director of Local Sourcing & Sustainable Agriculture, Ron McCormick, about the differences between large and small farms when it comes to meeting food safety requirements.

“Why is it more difficult for a grower with 50 acres to implement food safety standards and undergo food safety audits?” asked Roberts. “It would seem to me that somebody with smaller land and limited commodities, that you could implement the Good Agricultural Practices as a somebody in Western Kansas who has 5,000 or 15,000 acres and several different commodities.”

McCormick replied by pointing to issues that small farmers often bring up: it’s time and money.

“I think that it’s not necessarily harder, I think that it’s a matter of the obstacles being greater for a small farmer who doesn’t have a lot of capital, and who doesn’t have a lot of time to invest in it,” said McCormick. “A piece of it is simply the cost of the audit itself. So far a small farmer to pay for an audit that’s going to cost them an average of $1,500, it’s a large capital outlay for them.

“It’s difficult. And one of the great values of routine audits…it’s not just about what the auditor prevents from happening,” added McCormick. “The repeated visits from an audit, help a farmer get better, whether he’s small or he’s large. It helps them develop a system that prevents the threats to food safety from occurring. So often for a small farmer who wants to be a bigger farmer, there’s a capital outlay that’s going to come there, too. And it’s a new experience, sometimes, for the small farmer. It’s just a daunting experience and the time that’s involved and the capital outlay is a lot for a very small farmer.”

Roberts asked if Walmart required third party audits for all farm suppliers regardless of size.

“All suppliers, regardless of size,” said McCormick. “For our smallest farmers, we have kind of a step up program, where we work to take them to GFSI certification standards, the highest standards that are around.” 

What about cost for small farmers?

“An audit can cost from about $750 to $1,500, plus sometimes the travel cost of the audit. Often the travel cost is some of the most expensive… so one (of) the things our small farmers tend to benefit from us, is that our food safety department and the farmers in an area around one of our distribution centers coordinate our activity together.”

During the heated debate in 2009 and 2010 over the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which President Obama signed into law in early January 2011, small farmers were loud and clear about their concerns about burdensome food safety standards. Farmers across the country, along with sustainable agriculture interest groups, even managed to beat out large ag interests and win certain exemptions from new food safety rules, under the Tester amendment.

“Farmers want to work the land, they don’t want to spend days upon days trying to figure out paperwork,” said Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan in December, with the launch of a new, free, online tool to help small farms create food safety plans.

Joined by a broad coalition of industry, non-profit, and government stakeholders, the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled a new, free online tool to help farmers create customized food safety plans. The platform helps to streamline the process, making it easier for farms of all sizes to create a comprehensive plan aimed at reducing food safety risks, whether or not they fall under the purview of new FSMA requirements.