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.

  • Jerrold

    Wow, so food safety is cast aside by small farmers over the money! Greed and profits are supposed to be evils unique to dreadful large corporations but now we learn small farmers are just as eager to cut food safety corners to make a buck!! Why do we permit this attitude to prevail? Is it just a tribute to one or another of our great grandparents who we like to think were struggling peasant farmers? Perpetuating some obsolete trade as a modern hobby is OK for museums but it is foolish and dangerous for food consumers. Let these people play peasant farmer on their own time, like Civil War re-enactors (who at least observe common sense safety by firing blanks at one another!)

  • Catherine J Frompovich

    I think this proposal is outrageous. Why? Because big ag farming ‘safety’ standards have given us a poisoned environment, planet, food chain, and humans. Please get it correct, Senate Agriculture Committee, and stop pandering to big ag and the chemical companies.

  • TP

    Everyone needs incentive’s.
    Oil companies get incentives from the government, etc.
    Give the small farm a incentive through tax brakes to help them insure they are placing the safest product possible on the market. You maintain the certification you get the tax brake.
    Never bit the hand that feeds you.

  • It seems to me that this is confused. The issue of food safety, cost and size is not a Walmart issue; it is a regulatory issue. The issue of costs for an audit is only true if the farmer wants to sell to Walmart. Ag extension programs located at all state land grant Universities can assist farmers in developing GAP programs and training. If a farmer wants to sell to Walmart he can pay for that “pleasure.”
    Also the notion that small farmers should be exempt is equally ludicrous-biological hazards don’t schedule visits based on size of lots and I don’t know many small farmers that can afford to remain small farmers.

  • ecofood

    PC makes an important point. WalMart makes good things convenient and then sucks the good out of them by pressing suppliers to deliver at unrealistic wholesale prices. The farms that eventually compromise quality (i.e. grow GMOs, overfertilize and mistreat laborers) will rise to the top and then allow WalMart to own ag retail, and define the conversation. Their photogenic produce will be pitched in bins with no traceability for consumers who don’t have time and education to shop and eat carefully. Nothing new.
    An answer would be to get Senate testimonies from articulate successful farmers, committed to nutritious food and environmental sustainability. There are enough of these to affect good policy if Legislators listen. True, these farms are businesses that want to lower their bottom line too. But many of these farmers know that, only by making room for more like themselves, can this country count on quality food for the future.
    I don’t know you Jerold, but I will guess that you do not buy food at farmers markets, and often trust large ag conglomerates to deliver your food in individual packs. I hope you will buy an heirloom tomato this summer, from the person who picked it, and then ask your grocer why he does not have these. Then look online for books about why. ef

  • BB

    People can get sick from small farmers and corporate farmers alike. The only difference is that the corporate farmers rape the environment, poison our food with pesticides, and get more people sick when there is an outbreak.

  • Thomas J.

    Correction: The only difference is that small farmers have to sell their overpriced (but otherwise unremarkable) stuff by smearing real farmers with ridiculous accusations of planetary rape and genocidal poisoning. Negative campaigning is not only for desperate republican presidential candidates, as it turns out — slander is the only way desperate small farmers and their paid shills can differentiate themselves in the food market. The Senate certainly needs to “discuss” these vile market gardeners…then cut off all funding for them and regulate food safety in every aspect of their slippery trade.

  • Ok, first of all organic can use pesticides also and they can be just as or more dangerous than synthetic. Secondly, just because they say they are organic doesn’t necessarily mean it’s sustainable or environmentally friendly. For instance if they use copper as a pesticide and it’s applied improperly and causes contamination. This isn’t to say don’t buy organic it’s to say just because they claim it doesn’t make it so. For more on the organic issue there is some info here. http://qr.ae/Rvj2q
    Small farms did themselves a disservice by cutting themselves out of the regulations. What they should of done is follow the same rules but if there were any rules that were cost prohibitive they should have lobbied for the ability to request waivers from certain requirements or built in exemptions for certain requirements. The large restaurant chains have in house training, in house inspections, 3rd party inspections and the small restaurants don’t but both are able to comply with the same code. This is true with almost all businesses. Often smaller companies are granted exemptions from certain requirements. Now the small farms appear to be afraid of regulation, that they can’t comply. I would rather pay more for safe food if that is what it takes instead of them pissing and moaning about money when they should be worried about food safety. It will cost them more if they cause a food borne illness outbreak, possibly their livelihood.

  • paula

    Wow. All of these comments make me so incredibly sad. I’ve been in production ag my whole life. I grew up on 350 acres (small farm) that produce over ten commodities and now I’m employed on a larger farm where we grow three commodities on 1,200 acres.
    I developed the food safety program on my family’s farm, and I manage the food safety plan as a part of my job now. I can confidently say that food safety can be done and is being done on either size operation. What makes food safety really happen are the records. Most farms are in compliance with current food safety standards but are not recoding that they are doing it – the lack of records is what makes it undone. There isn’t a way to verify it.
    Food safety is not the responsibility of just the farm, but also the store and the consumers. How many people wash their hands before picking up produce at WalMart and putting it back down? I can guarantee (and verify) that my employees have before they picked it. But this does not happen in the store and it is a HUGE risk for contamination that people do not realize.
    Also, lets keep in mind that typically smaller farms are run by older generations. They are not ‘peasant farms’ but have established themselves and now have to change there process. Change is hard for anyone, and I am a believer in change don’t get me wrong, but adding new processes on something that people don’t feel educated about is intimidating, frustrating, and makes these small farms want to throw in the towel. So with the words they use to communicate this, it sounds peasant like, but they are far from it.
    Also, the notion that lager farms are terrible is so sad. Larger farms are able to employee more people. Families. Its moms, dads, brother, sister, uncles, cousins, and the few of us like me who can no longer work on the operations we grew up on because there isn’t room to grow the business to feed another mouth. Yes, we use fertilizer but that is a costly imput. I don’t know anyone who puts it on with out thinking and utilizing the minimal about because it is so costly.
    As a farmer, I urge the public to choose their sources of ag information carefully. We are not the terrible people that we are made out to be. We are feeding a growing population on less and less ground. The average American won’t work for us, they apply for the job and continue to collect their unemployment because their employment pays them more. Until America is willing to pay more for food, we can not afford to pay our employees more. The choice of this is in the people’s hands. And its clear, people want cheap food with more value and are still not willing to pay more for it.
    Yes ag has issues, but they are issues that the nation needs to address as a whole; food safety, work ethic, immagartion, responsibility and the disconnect that the American people have from modern agriculture

  • Brenda

    Good to hear from a real farmer every once in a while. When professional haters and paid shills for the organic small farm lobby do all the blogging, when they smear good honest modern agriculture non-stop it is sad, sad indeed.

  • G2 I.D. Source is having a seminar on March 19, 2012 in Jacksonville Florida that addresses the complete issues and solutions to these problems. F.D.A. , U.S.D.A., Scoring Ag Tracking Software, H.A.C.C.P. Specialist, Honeywell Scanners, Zebra Portable printers, and many more will be there. For more information go to http://www.g2idsource.com/lunchnlearn/03-19-2012/ for more information or contact us at 866-423-4519

  • Michael Bulger

    I’d be careful with the article you linked. It is rather poorly researched and sweeping. That’s a bad combination. If you can find the original article website, you can see my criticisms in the comment section.
    Don’t take all the comments to heart. There is a certain troll about who posts under several different names, and on several different sites. They’re distracting and negative, but it’s a broken record of one uninformed opinion. I think the vast majority of readers respect farmers. I don’t want to go off on a tangent about what consumers are willing to pay vs. what farmers and workers receive, but we should appreciate that there are marketers and retail in between the farm and the consumer. There are also landowners, subsidies, input and transportation costs, and much more that affect the economics. This is just to say that it is not simply a matter of consumers paying more at the store, or farmers selling cheap to the wholesaler, etc.

  • Jerrold

    Jim cites an excellent article artfully summarizing some of the many myths of organic agriculture. The research is just fine, the remarks are not at all sweeping or grandiose. Just a concise clear-headed statement of fact by a credentialed scientist in the field. Quality shows; one can easily discern credible KSU expertise from arrogant NYU buffoonery.
    As for novice opinions and criticisms offered up unsolicited from egotistic NYU college students, one is wise to brush those aside for the pedantic pap they invariably are. One big red flag goes up whenever the accusation “troll” is hurled at any opposition. Know unfailingly in that moment you are dealing with a shallow agenda-driven ideologue that cannot be reasoned with. A cry of “troll” is an admission of a fatally flawed argument. When you encounter an earnest excuse of mysterious deep, dark complexity shrouding an issue, complexity much too sophisticated for the likes of you or I to comprehend, well, then you’re dealing with an incompetent academic lecturer. Again, not anyone you want to be accepting unsolicited advice or cautions from, however pompously and forcefully they are served up. I would prefer to hear more from real farmers who grow significant crops to feed ordinary global citizens and less, a lot less from armchair organic small farm industry shills.

  • Michael Bulger

    Ah, “DocMudd”. Still playing well with others?

  • Ryan

    As I write this, my wife is walking to the CSA in our neighborhood where a nice young family grow a significant amount of our food. We also have a garden. If the food safety system which you prize has worked then it would not be necessary for my family to go to such great lengths to find and purchase or produce wholesome healthful food. We would just buy it at the supermarket.
    To more and more people local food seems safer and more healthful than food sourced from the industrial system.
    1) Food grown by regular people, local people in our neighborhood, grown in our neighborhood and harvested mere hours before we pick it up, grown with methods that we can see and understand (I ride my bike past the farm every day on the way to work). Face to face accountability.
    2) Food grown by strangers, far away strangers, food grown we know not where, harvested sometimes weeks before we consume it, grown and processed by methods which are hidden from us (GMO labeling, etc. . .), or methods which we cannot understand for their technological (or political) complexity, methods which may degrade the food or contaminate it. No accountability with face-less manufacturer.
    The choice is not hard for my family.
    As for the small farmers being greedy, valuing money more than the safety and welfare of his customers, this statement is misleading.
    First of all, the small farmer who sells face to face knows and cares for his customers. His customers are his friends and he values them. He is nothing without them. He does not wish them the least harm. He is providing a product that already vastly exceeds the safety and healthfulness of mass produced mono-crop farming.
    Secondly, the reason he cannot afford the regulations is because of economies of scale. A very large scale operation may be able to pay for compliance once for 1000 acres and the very small farmer may have to pay the same amount for compliance on only 2 acres. The cost of compliance may represent less than 1% of the operating budget of a very large farm, while compliance may cost a small farm more than half of his operating budget.
    Comparing small scale local farming to Civil War reinactors is very derogatory and intolerant. There would not be so many small farmers if informed educated people were not seeking them out and paying them for their products. It is a reality in our food supply that a portion of consumers seek out healthful local food, actually demanding access to local food infrastructures. The specific needs of decentralized local food infrastructures and economies of scale with in local (face-to-face) economies need to be represented productively by regulation, not merely derogated and regulated out of existence for the monetary profit of centralized Big-Ag food monopoly.