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Food safety on the farm

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More than year ago peanut butter made in the southern U.S. sickened hundreds of people and killed as many as nine. The outbreak set off a scramble to make food safer. Large and small farms across the country are being urged, and in some cases required by markets, to implement food safety plans or hire outside experts to cerify their practices.

But there are questions about how much the push for "food safety" will make food...safer. Peter Payette has more on the story.

April 14 and 15, the Cornell Cooperative Extension's Learning Farm in Canton is hosting a two-day workshop to help farmers develop food safety plans that focus on prevention. The all-day sessions are for farmers whose buyers are requiring third party verification of their food safety practices, or for farmers who are thinking about becoming certified. call 315-788-8450 x268 for more information.

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Transcript: Peter Payette, March 30, 2010

The government is NOT requiring farms comply with its safety rules yet, but some grocery chains and food distributors are.

Chris Alpers runs two farms in northern Michigan that grow both cherries and apples. He figures he'll spend $7,000 getting them certified. When asked if that will make his fruit any safer he pauses.

Alpers: That's a hard one to answer. I don't think we've had any issues in the past, nor would we if we continue the way we are currently doing things. But I guess the possibility is there that something could happen so certain things they are requiring us to do might make the fruit a little safer I suppose.

In fact, nobody has ever heard of this region's main crop making anyone sick. It's hard to imagine tart cherries being a little safer. They grow well off the ground. They're not picked by hand and are soaked in water on the way to be processed. Nevertheless, growers along the coast of Lake Michigan will line up this summer to pay inspectors ninety-two dollars an hour to make sure they're following a list of rules.

These include things like making sure workers only water drink in the orchard and that they wash their hands properly. Nobody complains the rules are unreasonable. But Dave Edmondson says they're impractical.

Edmondson: They want me to sign a piece of paper that this is going to happen every single day. I can't guarantee that!

Edmondson says he's happy to run his farm according to the new rules but there are limits.

Edmondson: It's like the Indy 500 come harvest time. You have to focus on the movement of the fruit and taking care of it.

There's also concern in this region about what new rules might do to the growing number of small farms. There's a trend here of farmers growing food to sell locally rather than for processing or to ship cross-country. There's even a distributor that supplies area restaurants, schools and grocers with local food. That company, Cherry Capital Foods, is not requiring its farms be certified.

The manager Evan Smith says he doesn't want to see the local food movement killed with new costs and paperwork. Smith says they visit farms they work with and he thinks small farms selling to neighbors are not the problem.

Smith: That's not to say it can't be better but I'm not sure we're going to see a significant change in the amount of food-borne illnesses or a decrease in those because quite frankly we're not seeing that occur right now. Still the dangers of a tomato or spinach leaf making someone sick are real.

That's why Don Coe says it will be better if everyone tries show their farms are clean and safe. Coe owns a winery and is a Michigan agriculture commissioner. He says one illness caused by a small farm selling locally would smear the movement.

Coe: That's my concern, is that we have to have an acceptable level of compliance with good food handling systems. We have to back it up with some kind of inspection service. It doesn't have to be as rigid as foods going into the major food channels.

The U.S. Congress might soon decide who needs to pass what sort of safety tests. Under legislation now pending a farmer selling a few bags of spinach at a farmers market could be subject to the same standards as huge processing plant.

For the Environment Report, I'm Peter Payette.

Copyright 2010. The Regents of the University Of Michigan. Used with permission.

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