Panel to Farmers: Have a Food Safety Plan in Place’

5/28/2011 10:00 AM
By Anne Harnish Food and Family Features Editor

PHILADELPHIA — “It’s easy to sit in an office and write food safety rules, but it’s completely different to be on the farm (looking at food safety),” said Joan Norman, co-owner with her husband, Drew, of One Straw Farm in Maryland. With new food safety rules coming soon, even if a farm practices stricter food safety methods than required by law, “no one wants to be the farm that is perceived as not safe,’” said Norman, just because the farm may not have gotten food-safety certified. Yet the burden of doing a food safety audit and following new food safety rules may seem overwhelming to a small family-run farm. Norman spoke at a public meeting Monday at the Academy for Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where the topic was new food safety rules and their impact on farmers. The academy’s Roland Wall said the meeting of farmers, consumers, inspectors and farm groups was to talk about balancing public health needs with the needs of farmers. One of the presenters, Palak Raval-Nelson of Philadelphia’s Environmental Health Services, described the city’s position on food safety inspections and initiatives for food safety. Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), said he had traveled to Washington, D.C., many times in the past two years to explain to legislators that when it comes to food safety legislation, “one size does not fit all farms.” Snyder said it took those two years for groups in support of small local producers to gain appropriate amendments to the food safety legislation that addressed the different safety handling needs of smaller-scale farms. With consumer food fears on the rise and large national food recalls issued several times a year or more for dangerous E. coli bacterial contamination, some grocery chains are requiring farms they buy from to become GAP-certified (Good Agricultural Practices). And some farms are independently choosing to become food-safety certified through the voluntary GAP program. On Jan. 4, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) — which aims to prevent foodborne illness — was passed by Congress. Now the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is working on food safety rules that will be enacted in the coming months and years, many of which will affect farmers. In addition, on Jan. 22, a little more than two weeks after the FSMA was signed, Act 106 of 2010, Pennsylvania’s new food safety law was also signed, with the potential to impact everyone in the food industry, including vendors at farmers markets. In reaction, many farmers — and consumers — have expressed apprehension about the coming rules. Three of Monday’s panelists asked, in a world where safety can never be 100 percent guaranteed, but only steps taken toward prevention, what is the real definition of “food safety”? “If food safety is being discussed, then everything needs to be on the table,” Snyder said of the national discussion of food safety laws. “It’s not just about pathogens, it’s also about (the safety of) pesticides and herbicides.” And farmers are unsure of how to proceed, while consumers have concerns too. At Monday’s meeting, a participant commented on the difference between food “safety” and food “quality.” Consumers want food to taste good and be nutritious, and while new legislation may address safety, some consumers carry the perception that in the rush to make food safe, food quality is decreasing. Traceability is also critical in food safety. “There’s nothing inherently safe about locally grown food,” Snyder said, “But it has two major advantages.” One advantage is traceability, he said, and, if there were to be contamination, the second advantage is that the contamination would be limited to a very small local population, unlike a huge producer, which might sell vegetables to grocery chains across many states. If contamination were present at that level, it could affect a much larger population across the U.S. “No technology will ever replace relationships,” Snyder said, describing the value of consumers knowing a local farm that sells its food directly to consumers. Snyder and Casey Spacht, general manager of the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative (LFFC), a 75-member farmers cooperative in Lancaster, Pa., talked about the rising interest in the “local food” movement, which prides itself on the idea that consumers can “know their farmer,” and thus bring direct accountability for the safety of the food grown within close proximity of the customer. “Our 75-acre farm feeds more than 10,000 people a week,” Norman said, noting that its CSA operation (community supported agriculture) has 2,000 households as farm members. The size of One Straw Farm requires the Normans to fill out a lot of paperwork in the process of gaining food-safety certification. But it allows for traceability. “Every time there is a national food scare, our business grows,” Norman said. After one such scare, she said stores and customers who typically bought from much larger, more distant distributors, contacted the farm and asked to buy its products. Norman said she can trace any vegetable delivery with just two or three phone calls — a call from the grocery store to her office; then with one or two calls from her to the farm’s employees, she can have the identification number of the shipment of vegetables that were delivered to that grocery store and know which field it was grown in. In comparison, Snyder said, in certain instances of large national E. coli scares over the past few years, such as the spinach recall of 2006, tracking the exact cause of contamination took as long as several months. What advice did the panelists have for farmers? Be proactive, they said. “Farmers should not avoid the (food safety) issue altogether,” Snyder said. “A farmer needs to know more (about food safety) than the inspector — an educated farmer is protected by knowing the information.” Norman’s advice to smaller-scale farmers? Attend food safety workshops, get ahead of the curve, find out what is being asked of farmers, get a plan in place, do what you can, and give yourself credit (in the plan) for all the safety practices you already do. Just have a plan in place for your own farm, Spacht said. Once the LFFC farmers understand what the food safety practices are, they pretty much agreed with them, he said, and many were things they were already doing or they were able to accommodate with simple changes. “A lot of food safety is common sense,” Spacht said, though he added, “Farmers get scared of so many rules and regulations.” Unlike the American judicial system, when it comes to food safety, it seems that farms are often considered “guilty until proven innocent,” Spacht said. Norman worries about what happens to her noncontaminated boxes of vegetables as they are loaded and stocked by handlers at other locations. “We are entering a time when that third-party advocate is needed to go to bat for farmers,” Snyder said. He believes that even the biggest growers in the nation, who may wish to control the lion’s share of the market, are aware that from a science perspective, the local food movement has its advantages for food safety. “With local, sustainably grown food, we’re onto something,” Snyder said. “We’re here to stay, and to grow.”

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