Beth Knorr, Market Manager & Local Food Programs Coordinator
Over the past year I have become increasingly involved in the discussions occurring around food safety. While this is not a topic I am particularly excited about- it’s much easier to get excited about the farmers’ markets and what the farmers and food producers are bringing – but it is incredibly important. With the foodborne illness outbreaks over the past several years, the federal government is feeling increased pressure to establish rules and regulations regarding on-farm food safety practices. Currently, both the USDA and the FDA are in the process of establishing standards. The USDA is in the process of adopting a somewhat controversial Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. In Ohio, the Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association is actively engaged in the process of devising standards for Ohio, partially in reaction to the USDA proposal for leafy greens.
On March 11, along with about 150 farmers, researchers, and industry representatives I participated in a day-long ‘listening session’ in Columbus held by the FDA with the Produce Safety Project. They were here to listen to what Ohio farmers feel is important to include – or not- in these rules. Some of the topics that stood out for me were:
- Scale matters. While an unsafe practice on one farm is also an unsafe practice on another farm regardless of scale, the costs of third party inspections and/or compliance could potentially put small scale farms out of business – in direct opposition to what many organizations are working towards and what many customers desire. Standards should be clearly measurable, and there should be some allowance for farmers to comply in an affordable manner. (For example, rinsing products in clean plastic bins as opposed to stainless steel sinks, etc.)
- Over-inspection is not the solution. Many larger scale growers in Ohio are already paying for two to three- sometimes even more – third party food safety inspections. One buyer will require a grower to use a particular inspection service, and a different buyer will require a completely different inspection service, dramatically increasing productions costs. Having uniform, scalable government standards could potentially alleviate this food safety ‘one-up-manship’ of the third party certifying agencies, reducing the burden on farmers.
- Food safety isn’t solely a farm problem. It was recognized at this session that food safety troubles don’t always begin at the farm. I heard time and again from participating farmers that they worry about how the product is being handled after it leaves their farm. Farmers rightfully don’t want to be held responsible if a processor combines their products with other farm products that are contaminated, or if someone in a processing plant doesn’t wash their hands after using the restroom. Or even, as many of us have done (myself included!), we as customers make a stop or two after the grocery store or farmers’ market and leave our fresh produce in the car un-refrigerated. All of us along the food chain have a part to play.
- Research is needed. Any standards established should be firmly rooted in sound science- this point is incredibly important to farmers. Given the discussions being held in the various break-out sessions that day, there appears to be plenty of topics for which clear answers do not yet exist. We must urge our government not to make rules before the science is clear, and evidence exists to support those rules.
Food safety is an incredibly complex and often contentious topic. I am already bracing myself for continued food-safety discussions at the first USDA Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee meeting I will be attending at the end of this month. Even though it’s not my favorite topic of conversation, I understand its potential impact on the growing number of farmers’ markets, CSAs and other direct market growers in Ohio and beyond, and I am glad to be bringing their voices to the table during these important discussions.