Local Food Doesn’t Mean Safe Food

The most recent Bloomberg Newsweek issue has an article called “Your Dinner Has Been Touched by Multitudes” by Elizabeth Dwoskin. Though her article is not about and does not explicitly endorse the local food movement, I initially took the article as another call to eating locally produced food after reading some stats like these:

  • Tomato sauce from one jar or on one pizza could be made of tomatoes from several different parts of the world
  • Food manufactures are required to keep records only on where they buy from and who they sell to, to one degree
  • 75% of the seafood and half the fruit in American supermarkets are imported

I thought, What if you knew that the pizza you were eating had sauce made from tomatoes from only one farm? What if that farm was from your state? And what if you even knew the farmer by name? Eating locally takes the guesswork out of your food supply; you know who touched your food and when, and if you suspect foul play, you know who to talk to and who to report to your state’s health department.

This is all very well and good, but what about contamination? How do small farmers and farmers markets fit into food safety guidelines? Can I really trust that the tomatoes I’m eating aren’t riddled with disease?

As I was reading more into the article, I recalled some emails sent over from some folks at my co-op about the Food Safety Modernization Act (SB 510), a bill this article mentions. The bill requires food processors and grows to “evaluate the hazards in their operations, implement and monitor effective measures to prevent contamination, and have a plan in place to take any corrective actions that are necessary. Also, FDA will have much more effective enforcement tools for ensuring those plans are adequate and properly implemented, including mandatory recall authority when needed to swiftly remove contaminated food from the market.”

Surprisingly, large manufacturers like General Mills, Kraft Foods, and Monsanto support the bill. Opposition comes from small- to mid-sized agricultural organizations: the American Grassfed Association, Family Farm Defenders (executive director John Peck told The Daily Caller that he thinks the bill is an attempt by big manufactures to pass the burden of responsibility back to the farmer), and the Small Farms Conservancy. The CS Monitor reports that critics say the bill “will create higher compliance costs for smaller producers, putting them at a competitive disadvantage against corporate farmers and producers who can more easily absorb costs, fees, and possible fines.” I even remember reading, back when I was first notified of the bill, concerns from people who own container herb gardens or vegetable patches—they thought the FDA, with its huge staff and unlimited time and money, would raid their gardens, clipboards and Petri dishes in hand, and impose fines for, you know…whatever you can fine a home garden for, then rip up their goods so that those rebellious home growers would never feed their sub-par produce to the masses again.

Thanks to the Tester-Hagan amendment, small farmers and home gardeners are explicitly exempt from SB 501. Growers must meet three conditions to be exempt:

1. Annual revenues must be below $500,000
2. They must sell directly to their markets (coops, CSAs, farmer’s markets)—no brokers/distributors
3. They do not sell beyond 275 miles

So, foodies, your rooftop chickens and fire-escape tomato plants, as well as the farms represented in your farmer’s market, are safe. Safe from…rigorous scrutiny by the FDA, the organization that aim to keep our food supply safe?

Contamination can happen at several stages from the farm to the table. Meat and poultry (inspected by the USDA) can become contaminated during slaughter through cross-contamination from intestinal fecal matter; fruits and vegetables, (inspected by the FDA), can be contaminated if they are washed using water or soil contaminated with animal or human waste; and anything can be handled improperly. Local farms are not immune to contamination at all stages of planting, growing, and selling.

I thought back to the emails from my co-op committee members and to the comments on various news sites and food blogs that admonished the bill as a means to destroying the small farm, thus the farmers market and CSA, through bureaucracy and fines, and how none of them brought up the point of the bill—to increase food safety through preventative measures rather than through response. The lack of concern is exemplified by this excerpt from an interview the Farmers Market Coalition did with Tenley Weaver and Dennis Dove of Floyd County, Virginia, who own Full Circle Organic Farm and operate Good Food-Good People, a distributor of local farm food.

FMC: It sounds like your client base is diverse—do any of them ask about food safety?

TW: Incredibly, they don’t! Foodborne illnesses have actually strengthened our sales and those of other small farmers and CSAs, due to the perception that food safety problems only occur at large companies. This is certainly idealistic, as small farmers can make mistakes too, although we do tend to care more about our customers than large corporations. Still, most of us are hesitant to bring food safety up, and it’s quite surprising that nobody—not farmers market customers, not restaurants, not natural food stores—has asked a word. Even more surprising is the fact that nobody except for us growers seems to have even heard of GAPs [Good Agricultural Practices].

Moral of the interview is, people (wrongly) assume that foods from a small, local source are clean, safe, and disease-causing-bacteria free. And small farmers don’t want to bring the issue up.

My farmers market, Greenmarket, stipulates that producers sell produce that is “fresh and of high-quality,” but does not define what those terms mean. Greenmarket also stipulates that producers must appear themselves at the market—they cannot hire outside representatives/salespeople, or resell to a distributor. In an Oregon farmers market, stands could resell produces from local farms—farms like Jaquith Strawberry Farm, whose strawberries were pulled from farmers markets, roadside stands, and some retail outlets after its E. coli tainted strawberries poisoned ten people and killed one elderly woman. (Food contamination is most threatening to children and the elderly, who are just as capable of eating, though less likely to eat, a locally grown strawberry as one processed by Monsanto.)

A quick Google brought up this article reporting on salmonella found on chickens in a DC farmer’s market. The farmers were “exempt from USDA inspections because they process fewer than 20,000 chickens a year.” From the original News21 article:

Benjamin Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, said in some cases small farms may be less safe. “We’re finding that there’s less pressure on a vendor at a [farmers’] market to implement risk reduction because the perception is that the product is safe already,” he said. “At a grocery store, growers have all these specifications they have to hit, but that’s absent in the farmers’ market.”

Here is another example of contamination from direct-to-consumer produce in Iowa in 2010.

Some small farmers say that they should be exempt from such scrutiny because they do not pose large-scale threats of food contamination like big suppliers pose. (As if small-scale contamination is okay?) According to Greenmarket’s Web site, Greenmarket farmers donate about 500,000 pounds of food to City Harvest and other hunger relief organizations each year. That’s 500,000 pounds of food handed over to at-risk individuals—those without health insurance or regular access to hygienic facilities. Further, over 250,000 customers frequent the markets every week in peak season. Is this really small scale?

Exempting small farms is like exempting people who drive less than x miles a week from getting car insurance. Though they pose less of a threat to other cars and pedestrians than those who drive long distances regularly, the threat still exists, hence why we have safeguards.

I support buying locally grown food for a variety of reasons: seasonality, freshness, low cost, taste, low environmental impact, and community development. But I do not support the idea that “green” necessarily means “good.” Or “safe.” Or “won’t give you salmonella.” Small farmers should be expected to prevent food contamination and foodborne illness the same as any other producer.

Addendum:
The White House says that the bill “calls for the strengthening of existing collaboration among all food safety agencies whether they are Federal, state, local, territorial, tribal, or foreign….the legislation directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to improve training of state, local, territorial and tribal food safety officials and authorizes grants for training, conducting inspections, building capacity of labs and food safety.” Why wouldn’t a small farm want access to these resources and benefits?

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2 thoughts on “Local Food Doesn’t Mean Safe Food

  1. Hi, Nicole, and thanks for exploring this issue as a supporter of local food. I would encourage your readers to check out the full interview with Tenley Weaver on the FMC web site (http://farmersmarketcoalition.org/food-safety-tweaver-interview), as Tenley further describes the proactive steps her farm continues to take with regard to food safety, in particular the testing of water and training of employees.

    Regarding your Addendum, those education and training grants were specifically advocated for by the sustainable agriculture community in an effort to disseminate best practices and provide practical tools to family farmers whether they specifically fall under Test-Hagan regulations or not. You can bet that small farms will be taking advantage of those much needed resources!

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