From Field to Fork: How Safe is Your Food … Really? Part II
Systems that Work
In the meantime, growers and shippers are reaping the benefits of a system aimed at ensuring food safety.
Jonathan Dinsmore, food safety coordinator and planting supervisor for Top Flavor in Yuma, is very encouraged by what the LGMA program has already done for growers in the area. “Food safety has become more science based with this program, with standards across industry and metrics and measurements behind it to constantly test the quality of the production process all along the food chain.”
Active in Arizona Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers & Ranchers, Dinsmore hopes to get the word out to consumers of the industry’s proactive efforts in this area. “People are still unaware of the program and what the agriculture and food industries are actually doing in Arizona and California,” he says. “When people find out they’re reassured. Plus, if one company suffers from a safety failure, every company in the industry suffers. So we don’t want to fail at what we’re doing. We’re all fighting for the same quality food to be produced and delivered safely to the consumer, which also happens to include my family.”
In charge of his organization’s food safety standards under the LGMA, he does believe that the program corralled potential contamination; but he cautions the food industry can never feel like it has reached perfection. “But we can strive to get pretty darn close,” he explains.
Dinsmore and others believe traceability is one of the most important aspects of the LGMA program. “Traceability has become a huge asset for the agriculture industry,” says Dinsmore. “Prior to the 2007 agreement, traceability issues were challenging. Now the goal is to move fast on traceability. We do mock recalls to help us pinpoint potential outbreaks and speed up the process. We work to see how fast we can trace it.”
Adds Arizona LGMA’s Waters, “It’s apparent that food safety is critical to anyone that harvests food. The whole effort through LGMA is to minimize risk. We’re regularly challenging ourselves for improvement.”
“This greater sense of cooperation and collaboration between food safety professionals,” says Amigo Farms’ Scott, “creates a great openness and we now truly know that if one of us fails we’ll feel the industry-wide impact. We’re all in it together for the benefit of public health.”
But while medium and large entities ─ both organic and conventional ─ are getting on board with these programs and are implementing them, small agriculture has not.
For small agriculture, there is a cost concern. And in some instances, simply a lack of awareness exists in the rapidly expanding trend of backyard growers who then sell their products at the local farmers’ market.
Though not yet done in Arizona, the University of California, Davis did a study in September 2009 that suggests growers’ costs for modifications made specifically for LGMA compliance averaged $21,490, or $13.60 per acre. Overall, the study is estimating that growers’ costs to comply with California’s LGMA program represents almost one percent (0.93%) of growers’ average lettuce revenues.
Yet, the study also indicated that seasonal food safety costs more than doubled after the implementation of the LGMA, increasing from a mean of $24.04 per acre in 2006 to $54.63 per acre in 2007.
Scott believes costs can be mitigated for the smaller producer. “Small growers could have a modified set of standard operating procedures that apply to their environment,” she says. “Basic practices can be as simple as protecting your crops from livestock and washing your hands when packaging produce. Everything in the LGMA and GAP/GHP might not apply to certain grower’s situation. So you modify and adapt.”
Big and Small, Food Safety is Key regardless of Size
“Big agriculture producers are more focused on food safety than the small backyard farmers, unless it’s a small urban farm that’s organically certified [as some procedures reflect food safety standards],” says Foster. “Non-certified Organic or conventional backyard farmers are at higher risk, especially if they’ve never really been in production agriculture prior to deciding to grow a backyard garden.”
A very distinct food safety issue between larger growers and smaller farmers involves animals. We might feel warm and fuzzy when we see a dog loping through the farmer’s produce field with him as the farmer talks about his vegetables. However, in larger operations under the Leafy Greens Agreement, no animals of any kind are allowed in, or even near, the fields because of contamination risks.
This is the area that ADA’s Foster and others share their biggest concerns: small operations growing fruits and vegetables while at the same time managing a herd of livestock in close proximity to vegetable production. “In small, closed areas one raises his risk for some type of bacteria emerging when you’ve got a mixed agriculture setting and no real safety practices in place,” he explains.
The leafy green program has proven that farm animals raised close to produce fields creates a higher risk environment. This can include wildlife encroachment as well.
The increase in backyard farming includes raising chickens for eggs. Farm fresh eggs are the new trend. And yet, these mini farms can become the very places for a hazard especially if it’s someone just starting out.
And, traceability challenges if an outbreak occurs at a farmers’ market are numerous due in part to licensing issues. While the backyard farmer doesn’t need a business license to sell his produce at a local farmers’ market, he does need a license the minute he decides to sell to a restaurant since it sets up a resell transaction via the restaurant. Due to the number of small or backyard farming operations, there is no way the ADA or USDA can inspect all these mini farms.
Though a program for the small grower currently may not exist, this doesn’t mean that all small farms are at risk. In fact, in Arizona certain mini or urban farms are models of what should be done to ensure food safety. Everything from keeping animals out of their fields to their cleaning processes when packing up fruits and vegetables help support food safety.
Ultimately food safety is in everyone’s hands. From the moment the grower plants the seed in a field to the final stop on our dining room tables, food must be handled with tender loving care. Our lives depend on it.
Top Reasons the Arizona Leafy Green Products Shipper Marketing Agreement Keeps Your Food Safe
- Created a compliance plan outlining best practices and procedures for meeting the LGMA requirements.
- Monitors crop areas for food safety risks such as adjacent land activities, minimizing flooding and animal intrusion prior to planting, within one week of harvest and on the day of harvest.
- Evaluates water sources for microbial risks and tests monthly.
- Emphasizes and instructs on good personal hygiene and food-safe employee practices when working with leafy greens.
- Maintains field sanitation by reducing the potential for contamination from tractors, farming equipment, harvest machinery, trash and debris.
- Designates an individual responsible for the operation’s food safety program with 24-hour contact information in case of food safety emergencies.