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Food Safety Moves Could Harm Local Farm Prospects

Attempts to catch industrial problems load smaller farms with big costs

July 8, 2009 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Livestock factories and produce mega-farms face significant food safety problems, but proposed rules to fix them threaten smaller, non-industrialized growers, who neither need nor can afford them.
With national recalls of meat, peanut butter, spinach, and other food products eroding confidence in our global food system, shoppers want to know more about where their food comes from and how it was produced. But that loss of faith in the mass food market is now morphing into a different type of food safety scare, one that alarms small and medium-size family farms.

Even as growing numbers of consumers turn to these smaller, nearby growers to avoid food that travels thousands of miles, through many hands, before reaching grocery shelves, the farmers are suddenly facing a regulatory tsunami that could wipe out their ability to grow.

The nation's food safety system is overdue for an upgrade. The Obama administration this week released the recommendations of a presidential task force focused on that job. Yet smaller farms with little clout in such high-stakes negotiations are concerned they will end up struggling under the weight of new fees and requirements designed for higher risk situations, and facing new rules that effectively ban common, age-old practices like using manure for fertilizer.

Michigan farms are seeing strong evidence that their fears are well founded. New and costly requirements are coming fast from grocery chains and other large retail buyers in the state that this year began demanding new food safety paperwork from farmer suppliers.

There’s a storm gathering on the national scene, as well. Congress is eyeing legislation that presents cost and compliance concerns for smaller farms, while industry giants are working for a national "leafy greens" standard designed for large-scale operations, but which would apply to every size and kind of lettuce and spinach grower.

On the Job in Leelanau County
One example of the new problems for small Michigan famers is Leelanau County fruit and vegetable grower Tom Korson. For years, his family sold produce to the Meijer superstore in Traverse City. But this year Meijer, a Michigan-based company, informed suppliers like Mr. Korson that it will only be able to take their farms' products if they become “GAP-certified”—that is, if they pass a series of costly food safety tests under a set of voluntary U.S. Department of Agriculture standards called "Good Agricultural Practices."

GAP is not exactly a new thing, according to Benzie County Extension Director Steve Fouch, who says that the program “has been around a long time, and most farms already do 80 percent or more of what's in it."

But, Mr. Fouch pointed out, this year retail buyers are making GAP mandatory,requiring farmers to pass GAP audits, which require extensive documentation that most farmers do not currently have.

Applying GAP more strictly is actually a marketing strategy for retailers trying to assure shoppers and avoid liability. But it's a big economic and operational shock to farmers, who have to pay for the audits so that retail stores can say they sell "certified" produce.

Mr. Korson was able to scramble and meet the new GAP requirements for this year’s growing season, but that does not mean his certification woes are over.

That is because GAP is also only one of several types of third-party certifications that different retail buyers are now requiring of farms. There is no single, universal standard that works for both consumers and farms, and that further complicates the current situation for food producers, said natural foods consultant Warren King, whose Wellspring Management company is involved in gearing farms up for new markets.

"If you’re selling to three or four outlets, you may face three or four different sets of requirements," Mr. King warned.

No Choice, Little Help
Mr. Korson values his business with Meijer, and so he is among the first in the region to get going this season with GAP audits. But, with so little time to prepare, it's a challenge to get everything together so that things go perfectly on inspection days.

"If you don’t pass, you have to do it all over again," Mr. Korson said.

The cost to his small farm is substantial—about $1,000 per crop per inspection, including the $75 an hour travel time that inspectors from Lansing charge to audit each crop at its harvest time.

"We grow strawberries, cherries, apples, potatoes, and sometimes peas, and we have to be certified on each one," he said.

Situations like Mr. Korson’s has Michigan farms, producer groups, and agricultural agencies like Michigan State University Extension scrambling to adjust to a new market reality. MSU Extension only recently sent some of its educators to training sessions for food safety audits so they can help farms. And one of the only comprehensive resources for growers produced to date is a manualthat staff at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center managed to pull together quickly this past winter.

"This manual will be really helpful as we work to get growers up to speed for the 2010 season," predicted Cherry Marketing Institute Director Phil Korson, who is Tom Korson's nephew.

The National School Lunch Program is also driving northern Michigan and other cherry growers to become GAP-certified.

"We sold 28.3 million pounds of cherries last year to the school lunch program," Mr. Korson said. "It's a market we really value as an industry, and we want to continue to grow it."

Pressure from Congress, Industry
But GAP certification is just one of many challenges that smaller growers are suddenly facing. Both Congress and the large-scale produce industry are actively considering other initiatives that could further pinch the very growers whom consumers are turning to for safer food because of the shorter, cleaner routes their products take from farm to dinner table.

Each initiative takes a one-size-fits-all approach that gives little consideration to the different levels of food safety risk that different types of operations pose. Each also pushes its high compliance costs down to farms, which sit at the bottom of the food supply chain with no ability to recoup those new costs in the market.

For example, a bill now on its way to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives improves safety oversight of big operations that bag hundreds of thousands of pounds of lettuce. But the bill, the Food Safety Enhancement Act (HR 2749) is hardly safe for small farms and local foods, according to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and other sustainable agriculture groups, who have been trying hard to exert some influence on the negotiations in Washington.

One problem is the $500 fee the bill imposes on operations that package farm products in any way. It's designed to cover the cost of inspecting large-scale facilities, which have multiple facilities and would pay $500 for each. But the same fee and federal inspection requirement would apply all the way down to the very small farm harvesting a few bags of produce.

Meanwhile, the produce industry is also busy trying to change the rules. Industry officials are pushing for a national "leafy greens" standard that would force costly solutions onto all growers no matter the different risks they pose, said Russell Libby, director of the Maine association.

"The leafy greens agreement wants you to have each batch of greens tested by a lab. When I go to harvest 20 heads of lettuce, I'm not taking it to a laboratory," he said of the policy suggested by the industry. "There are some real scale-of-business issues hiding in here and it's not necessarily the government legislation that is least friendly to family farms."

He also points out that these new regulatory efforts focus solely on bacterial contamination and ignore other significant food safety issues consumers have with industrial agriculture, like overuse of cancer-causing chemicals.

That's a big issue for northern Michigan food blogger Paula McIntyre.

"Putting bar codes on bags of lettuce isn't even on my radar,” Ms. McIntyre said. “I'm much more concerned about the use of hormones, pesticides, and antibiotics in our foods, and their long-term effect on human health and the environment."

The current state and national food safety scene poses two challenges, according to the Cherry Marketing Institute's Phil Korson, and they are both about types and levels of risk.

"In the commercial world of sliced apples going into national school lunch distribution, for example, we need to get a program in place so growers can comply with food safety requirements without going out of business."

But in local food markets, he said, the first challenge is to make sure smaller producers can stay in business, so that both consumers and farmers have choices about where to buy and sell fresh food.

"The small producer selling locally is generally the person who grew that food," Mr. Korson said. He added that such markets provide an opportunity for farms to be in business and keep their communities healthy with great food and local commerce.

"It would be a huge step backwards if commercial-scale regulations were pushed all the way down to farmers markets and the like."

Patty Cantrell is program director for the Michigan Land Use Institute, where she built northwest Lower Michigan’s nationally recognized Taste the Local Difference program. Patty is also a 2008-2009 Food and Society Policy Fellow focused on promoting local food and farming as a New Economy strategy. Reach her at pattycATmlui.org.

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