A noted food-safety expert says she’s pleased with how much information about local farms and food safety is contained in a recently released needs assessment survey report,  but she also admitted to being surprised at one of the unexpected that surfaced in the report.

According to the report, some local food producers were confident in their ability to assess food safety risks in their operations, despite more than a third of the participants in the survey indicating that they had not been to any formal food-safety training, such as Good Agriculture Practices (GAPs) or a Produce Safety Alliance grower training.

And even though less than half of the respondents said they had attended some type of produce safety training, the majority felt confident in their ability to identify how human pathogens spread (86 percent), how to reduce food safety risks (90 percent) and in their ability to describe the difference between ‘cleaning’ and ‘sanitizing (88 percent).

“This is one of the most perplexing results of the survey,” says the report.

One of the authors of the report, Cornell food scientist Elizabeth Bihn and director of the Produce Safety Alliance, said that some of these growers may have had training that the survey did not capture — or “it could be that growers think it (food safety) is common sense.”

Betsy Bihn

But Bihn doesn’t buy into that line of thinking. “Having worked with growers for more than 20 years, I think that food-safety training is really valuable because I do not think all of this is common sense,” she said. “Growers often comment after training that they were not aware of certain risks or how practices could reduce those risks so training gives them the opportunity to learn about microbial risks present in growing and packing environments.”

And even though many consumers believe that “local” food  is safer because it’s grown closer to home, as opposed to food from corporate agriculture, which is often shipped great distances from where the food was produced,  Bihn said that local food is not “inherently safer.”

“All produce is subject to contamination, so growers who do not understand microbial contamination could be using practices that increase risks,” she said. “Every farmer should understand food-safety risks, how to assess their farm risks, and reduce them. How do you know you have the knowledge you need if you’ve never been exposed to the information?”

Foodborne risks include dangerous, and sometimes deadly, microscopic organisms such as pathogenic strains of E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria, which can contaminate the food. This can happen if farmworkers (including farm owners, their families, or friends) don’t wash their hands before picking or packing the food or if domestic animals such as cows or wild animals enter the fields and leave their poop on the produce. Water contaminated with these pathogens, when it contacts produce directly through irrigation or washing, is another risk, among others.

For fresh produce that will be eaten raw such as leafy greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, and most fruits, this is especially concerning because it doesn’t go through the “kill step,” which happens when food is cooked.

When asked about statistics pertaining to foodborne illnesses and “local farms,” Bihn said that information is hard to come by simply because local farms are generally small, which means their customer base is small. Someone might feel sick after eating some food from a local farm, but unless he or she knows other people who ate the same food from the same farm, the sickened person might think it’s an individual problem, not something that should be reported to health officials.

In  2006, it was bagged spinach from a 2.8-acre field (transitioning to organic) in California that caused the “historic” E. coli outbreak.

According to the USDA, by the time the outbreak was over, 204 people had become ill across 26 States and Canada, 104 had been hospitalized, 31 had developed the serious complication of hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), and three had died.

It was this outbreak that led the produce industry, and consumers, to demand that something be done to make food safer. In 2011, the Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law. Its focus took an entirely different tack: instead of reacting to outbreaks, which had been the case before the act was passed, the focus was put on preventing them.

Part of that legislation is the Produce Safety Rule, which requires produce growers to follow food-safety rules. However, many small-scale growers are exempt. This is why it’s so important that they learn about and follow established food-safety practices, even though doing so is voluntary.

As food safety officials point out, the exemption doesn’t exempt them from lawsuits should any of their customers get sick. Or the remorse of knowing that their food got someone sick. Not to mention, the possible closing down of their farm.

On  the other side of the coin, the increasing concentration within the produce industry puts the spotlight on corporate ag when an outbreak does occur.

According to the USDA, “If something goes wrong at an operation handling a large volume of product, the number of ill consumers may be quite large and the outbreak may be more likely to be detected.”

As an example, USDA pointed to the “capital-intensive bagged-salad industry” where two processing firms account for about 90 percent of the retail market.

A snapshot of ‘local’

The Local Food Safety Collaborative Needs Assessment Survey was designed to determine the food-safety practices, knowledge, barriers and attitudes of food producers considered to be ‘local.”

For this survey, “local” was defined as food producers who sell more than 50 percent of their products within 275 miles from their farm or food operation.

In the survey, farmers, food processors and food packers/aggregators were recruited to complete, either on line or paper-based, surveys.

The picture that emerged was that 60 percent of  those surveyed sold direct to customers, followed by domestic wholesale markets (14 percent) and to retail (11 percent).

These figures highlight the significant economic role of local food production at the county-level.

Bihn pointed out that local farms play an important part in food security. “The more access we have to fresh food, the better.,” she said. “Having small-plot production points insulates us from times when food might be scarce” for one reason or another, and fresh produce always tastes better.

The report was released earlier this month by the National Farmers Union Foundation’s Local Food Safety Collaborative (LFSC) and Cornell University.

“All farmers understand the importance of food safety on their operations,” said National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson. “First and foremost, they want to keep American consumers healthy by protecting them from foodborne illnesses. But they also want access to markets to sell their products, and that often means complying with food safety regulations. This assessment will help us ensure that farmers have access to the resources they need in order to comply with those regulations, which will, in turn, ensure their economic viability and the health of the public at large.”

The combined results of the report and the listening sessions that followed will be the basis of the organizations’ Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) educational outreach in the future.

The LFSC and Cornell University organized the listening sessions, which were held across the country. During the sessions, small groups of local food producers had the opportunity to discuss the issues brought up in the report in greater detail.

What are the hurdles?

Farming is always a challenge. Adverse weather, crop pests, poor production, and weak markets are always looming in the background.

But when it comes to meeting food-safety requirements, farmers in the survey pointed to three biggies: Time, money, and infrastructure, all of which can be in short supply on a local farm.

More than half of respondents said that these barriers were either moderately or greatly limiting to their farming operations. Other concerns were the need for skilled labor, technical assistance, appropriate supplies and equipment, and knowledge and information. Some said that instead of training and educational sessions on the broad topic of food safety, they’d like to see sessions geared to specific locations and specific crops.

In addition, they agreed that financial and technical assistance could help them put good food-safety practices into place.

What motivates them? 

Local growers in the survey point to four top reasons. At the top of the list is personal commitment to producing a safer product (86 percent), followed by reducing exposure to lawsuits (82 percent), maintaining market access to meet buyer requirements (79 percent) and meeting regulatory requirements in the Food Safety Modernization Act. They also cited gaining new markets, receiving higher prices and preventing loads of food from being rejected.

What about third-party audits?

The report says that some of the farmers didn’t even know what a third-party audit is. As long as they’re just selling direct to customers, they wouldn’t need one. But once they want to expand to other markets, they’ll probably need to have one done.

Simply put, it’s a matter of a third party coming in and assessing a farm to see if it’s following food-safety requirements.

In 1999, Safeway became the first U.S. grocery chain to require audits from its suppliers of high-risk fresh produce, which would include produce that is usually eaten raw. Other grocery retailers and restaurants followed suit.

USDA says that retailer food safety requirements have shaped the current food safety landscape and will determine the extent to which the Food Safety Modernization Act’ Produce Safety Rule will affect growers.

For local growers who want to sell to wholesalers and retailers,  getting an audit is usually required. The customer asking for an audit will usually point a grower to a third party auditor. Growers can also contact their local Extension agents for a list of auditors.

What about organic?

According to the report, local organic food producers “appear to be closer to meeting regulatory expectations of the Food Safety Management Act.”

Ann Novak and Larry Hartford own Highland Farm West near Burlington, WA.

Two of those farmers, Ann Novak and Larry Hartford, owners of Highland Farm West near Burlington, Wash., said that is probably because most organic producers follow National Organic Program standards even if they’re not certified organic.

“There’s more awareness about food safety,” Novak said.

But she also said it’s important that food safety not be “over-administered.”

Farms are in a squeeze,” she said. “There are some grants available but there needs to be more funding for opportunities such as Good Agricultural Practices and other food-safety programs. We always look at new ideas.”

A ‘working’ example of food safety on local farms

Viva Farms (vivafarms.org), a non-profit Farm Business Incubator and Training Program in Western Washington, was established in 2009. Operating farms in three locations, it lowers barriers for beginning farmers and creates the opportunity for them to be successful in farming. It is currently incubating 24 farms, seven of them Latino-owned.

So far, it has educated more than 900 small farmers (150+ Spanish speakers) in sustainable organic farming.

Not surprisingly food safety is an important part of this.

“This is important to us at Viva because we have a brand name, and we all have to work together to protect our brand,” said Rob Smith, who oversees food-safety training programs at Viva.

Viva Farms undergoes a third-party Washington State Department of Agriculture audit and has an umbrella Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) certification that covers all of the incubating farms.

“We can consolidate the administrative portions of our GAPs certificate on behalf of farmers and thus do the heavy lifting in terms of paperwork and management,” said Smith.

During the practicum in Sustainable Agriculture before becoming part of Viva, farmers learn about food safety.

“Really right from the get-go,” Smith said. “They take it seriously. Everyone here is a farm owner. They know that if there’s a ‘food-safety” incident’ they’d be out of business.”

He describes food safety as “a lens” to use when you’re looking at the whole farm as opposed to an isolated program.

“It all works together,” he said.

Smith, who has been at Viva for 6 years, said he has seen a change over those years in people’s attitudes toward food safety.

“This is the world we’re living in,” he said. “They’re hearing it from their own customers. They’re not resistant. And that’s a win for everyone.”

Smith said that it’s very satisfying knowing that he’s involved in an enterprise that is helping beginning farmers grow safe healthy food and support their families.

“They take pride in it,” he said. “And a large part of that is food safety.”

The good news

According to the report, even though many local producers are not under the regulatory gun to adopt food-safety practices, many have voluntarily put them into place on their farms.

“Overall local food producers responding to this survey are engaged with the concept of food safety and are interested in additional information as reflected in their open-ended responses,” says the report.

Bihn said she has seen improvements over the past 20 years.

“Absolutely,” she said. “I still do bump into farmers who are unaware of food safety, but not as much as before. Clearly, there’s much more dialog about food safety. Growers are implementing practices because they think it’s the right thing to do.”

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