Observations on the Changing Landscape of Food Safety in Local Food Systems

      Posted On: April 18, 2012

by Elizabeth Comiskey, Membership & Volunteer Coordinator

Locally grown’ signs are in every grocery store I enter these days. My agriculturally rich state of Pennsylvania boasts farm to school, hospital, and institution, at every turn. No doubt, we are moving in the right direction. Where the infrastructure is in place to take advantage of these market opportunities, many farmers are diversifying at this level. Alongside these growing initiatives is the worldwide focus on food safety, and the not-yet-specified protocol for small-scale farmers. Clarification on the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requirements are expected this spring when the FDA will release proposed rules and seek public comment. Many farmers that sell to larger institutions and grocery stores are required by the insurance companies of the buyers to become at least GAPs (Good Agricultural Practices) certified.  For the most part, this hasn’t been the case with direct marketing.

At a farmers market, it is less likely that a customer is going to press farmers for a GAPs certification, as shoppers tend to feel that buying direct from the farmer is safer. Many farmers noted that demand for cantaloupes went up last fall when there was a listeria outbreak in other areas of the country, though unfortunately, in eastern PA the season was not a good one for the melon. A similar phenomenon was noted after the bagged spinach scare several years ago.

While smaller crops and different processes decrease impact, they don’t remove responsibility.  Farmers may have earned customer trust, but what about the insurance companies? If the trend is moving towards GAPs certification for sales to institutions, could it become a requirement at farmers markets? Will doors to more and more marketing outlets close if farms don’t have GAPs, or other 3rd party audits?  Even if laws are not requiring it, some insurance companies are.  Farm to school programs, food hubs, and grocery stores are already being required to use audited farms, no matter how much they love their farmers and trust their practices. As farmers markets grow, producers should be aware that, sooner or later, they may need a food safety plan, or GAPs training, even in direct marketing to consumers.

Currently, GAPs certification is not required at Common Market, a wholesale distributer of local food in Philadelphia, but they are moving in that direction. At a recent Penn State Extension GAPs certification course in Kutztown, PA, Common Market operations manager, Zoe Lloyd, explained that they are asking their farmers to create a food safety plan now, in anticipation of the new FDA rules, or insurance requirements. “We are encouraging all of our farmers to create a plan.  It is important for them to be proactive, and to do it to serve safe food, not because they are being forced to get another certification.”

Is it a farmers market manager’s job to learn about GAPs?  One of the keys is traceability.  Does the manager know where all of the farm products are coming from? If reselling is allowed, is the farm of origin clearly marked on the product? In an E.coli outbreak during the summer of 2011, identifying the origin of strawberries being resold at an Oregon farmers market was essential to protecting consumer health and trust.

Producer-only farmers markets eliminate the need to trace the origin of a product, as long as farmers and vendors are following the rules. In a recent FMC webinar, Ensuring Integrity and Enforcing Standards at Farmers Markets, June Russell described the process of inspections at Greenmarkets in New York City.  Their system is elaborate, involving annual submissions of crop production records, seed receipts, and farm maps. Resources on their process are available at the webinar link. An educated market manager visiting a farm for an inspection can go in with eyes wide open, to help serve the grower and the customer.

It goes without saying that basic food safety best practices also need to be followed at markets themselves. GAPs protocols do include field packing and handling, as well as post-harvest handling, but don’t include many protocols for direct marketing. Each state has its own farmers market regulations set forth by various agencies. FMC has recently compiled these regulations into a document that can be viewed here (please note that we were unable to identify up to date links in certain states, and appreciate our readers’ efforts to help us ensure that this list is comprehensive and accurate).  If you want to help with this work in progress, we encourage you to add your state’s regulations and resources here.  This past year, a very thorough resource for food safety at farmers markets was developed by the Farmers’ Market Federation of New York (FMNFY). It has recommendations for farmers markets that include what is required by law, as well as additional suggestions that a market manager can incorporate. The protocols guide highlights common farmers market issues that are not covered in GAPs, from dogs and farm animals at the market, to the potential for customers to contaminate products when they handle produce.  “These recommendations, however, do not replicate GAPs, but rather continue from where GAPs left off – the retail setting,” explains Diane Eggert, executive director of FMFNY, “One question that has come up is the concern that these recommendations will be adapted by the state as requirements. However, we believe that by offering the recommendations, showing that farmers and managers are taking food safety seriously and implementing on-site food safety plans, that we can eliminate the need for the state to step in and add additional regulations.”

The infrastructure at the majority of markets is very simple- most markets are outdoors and create themselves on a weekly basis, giving local parking lots an instant makeover every week. This can make basic necessities, like sinks and bathrooms, a challenge. In Pennsylvania last summer, sinks were a hot issue because of a new law, and market managers either got creative with DIY hand washing systems, or invested in mobile sink units, such as the weatherproof ones from Ozark Portable Sinks.

As pop up tents triumph over open asphalt this season, market managers have the responsibility to keep a bird’s eye view on food safety and customer satisfaction.  If your market has specific food safety rules, or if certain producers become GAPs certified, let customers know on your websites, or at your information table. Building and maintaining trust is an ongoing, proactive process as consumers become more educated and concerned about food safety practices. Farmers should be encouraged by market managers to create food safety plans, which need not be much more complicated than documentation of every day common sense.

The FDA rules to be released soon are likely going to farmers time to develop plans, if they are required to do so. However, we already see that some insurers of food retailers and institutions have required 3rd party audits without regard to timing in the growing season, leaving some farmers stuck with a lot of produce to sell, and nowhere to sell it. To the best of my knowledge, this hasn’t happened at the direct-to-consumer level, but because food safety is good business, managers and growers are advised to be proactively committed to traceability and the ultimate health and wellness of their customer base. FMC will alert its member to any aspects of the FSMA relevant for farmers market sales when FDA releases proposed rules for comment in the coming weeks.