Creating a Culture of Food Safety in Local Food Systems

As the market for local food expands further into the wholesale arena, the opportunity for collaboration has emerged for small farmers and their wholesale customers to create a culture of food safety in local food systems.

Many small, diversified crop farmers in the U.S. that market their products directly to household shoppers through farmers markets already comply with county and state laws. And even though farmers pride themselves on practicing common sense food safety, businesses and institutions are reluctant to source local food from small farms due to a lack of third party federal food safety certification. This means that small farms can only access a fraction of this booming market.

The new produce safety rule under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requires documentation that small farmers may find daunting. A small farm is defined as one that grows and sells between $1,000 and $250,000 per year in agricultural products. According to a recent USDA Census of Agriculture, about 86 percent of California’s commercial farms are small. Grocery retailers, distributors and institutional buyers feed a lot more people than farmers markets so their liability risk is greater. Farmers who want to diversify their revenue through wholesale markets must comply with FSMA. Will these new rules hurt or help connections between buyers and sellers?

Background on FSMA

In an effort to help produce farmers and food importers take steps to prevent food safety problems before they occur (vs. responding to outbreaks), in 2011, President Obama signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Last November, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published its final rules and science-based standards for produce safety. The FSMA law is the most significant food safety reform to be launched in seventy years.

Since the signing of the law, sustainable food advocates worried that FSMA rules would marginalize small, diversified crop farms but the final rules show that many concerns were addressed. For example, compliance dates for the Produce Safety rule are staggered according to an operation’s size and scale. This provides additional time for diversified crop farmers with limited resources to comply with the rules and maintain business operations.

Most large scale produce distributors and federally reimbursed school lunch programs already require farm suppliers to have Good Agricultural Practices/Good Handling Practices (GAP/GHP) food safety certification by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Farmers working towards GAP/GHP certification start by creating a food safety plan and QMS (quality management system) for their whole operation, followed by internal audits. Once a farm has completed these initial steps and is confident about passing inspection, they can schedule an audit. Companies wishing for a food safety certified, local, sustainable food supply will soon have the option to support a new USDA program called GroupGAP. The program will help reduce as much financial and administrative burden as possible from GAP certification on individual farm enterprises. GroupGAP is designed for small farmers who are working in groups (i.e. cooperatives and food hubs) to market, aggregate and distribute fresh, local, sustainable food to the industry while adhering to the strict food safety standards required for the mass market, global supply chain.

Company Takes The Lead on Food Safety

For more than a decade consumer demand for local food has been consistently high. Taste, freshness, sustainable, fair, organic – these are all quality attributes associated with local food. To best serve the masses, foodservice operator Bon Appétit Management Company created their own food safety program called Farm to Fork to enable small-farm direct business transactions. While food safety is very important to us, and we do ask our Farm to Fork vendors to follow specific food safety guidelines, it’s not in the top five reasons we seek out small local vendors. We do it first for taste and freshness, then to support our communities directly economically and the kinds of land-use, animal-welfare and other sustainability practices that align with our values,” explains Danielle Pilarski, Sourcing Specialist. Bon Appétit Management Company’s Farm to Fork program is an example of how one major food service operator is addressing food safety while enabling small farmers to expand into wholesale. “We’re proud that since 1999, all Bon Appétit Management Company chefs have striven to source at least 20 percent of their ingredients from small farms and ranches within 150 miles of their kitchens,” said Maisie Ganzler, Bon Appétit’s chief strategy and brand officer. “We now have more than 1,400 local vendors nationwide. These relationships have translated not only into tens of millions flowing back annually into the communities in which we operate, but into a brand built on the freshest, most flavorful food.” In this way, the collaboration between corporations and small farms results in a mutually beneficial economic relationship.

Comparing the National Organic Program and FSMA

According to farmgate sales captured in the 2012 Ag Census, California specializes in high-value crops produced on small organic farms. During the recent EcoFarm 2016 Conference, Kaley Grimland de Mendoza of Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), and Ann Baier of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), provided current information on the final FSMA produce safety rule against the National Organic Program (NOP) to a room full of organic farmers and technical assistance providers. It was helpful to see the correlation between the two programs but the message was clear that organic farmers who are documenting rigorous processes for organic certification may have a shorter learning curve for FSMA than farmers who are not participating in the NOP. The workshop concluded with multiple questions from farmers who shared contact information with each other and planned to continue sharing ideas and resources after the conference. Grimland de Mendoza agrees, “Farmers can achieve success by supporting each other and sharing best practices. There are others like you who have had the same worries and who have successfully gotten through it. We (at ALBA) couldn’t have gotten through our certification without the support of other farmers. We learned so much from other farmer’s experiences.”

There is an opportunity for small farms to come together to meet the growing demand for local food and to create a culture of food safety in local food systems. Through FSMA and certifications like GAP and GroupGAP, the FDA and the USDA can provide a bridge between buyers and sellers to enable more trust, cooperation and commerce. Local food advocates already know that local food is fresh, delicious, sustainable and safe. As more small farms join forces to educate themselves and their customers, share ideas and support each other to comply with federal food safety standards and obtain third party certification, there is hope that the industry will be more inclusive to small, sustainable farms.

Calling All Organic Produce Farmers!

The Organic Trade Association in partnership with UC Davis Veterinary Medicine, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, The Organic Center, UC Western Center for Food Safety and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension is conducting a manure and food safety survey and they need your input. Results from this survey will assess manure, compost, and rotational grazing practices used by the organic industry and to identify potential food safety risks related to microbial contamination and provide critical information that will be used to develop research on risk mitigation of foodborne pathogens for organic and sustainable agriculture. Take the survey now!