Opening Markets: Exploring And Communicating Food Safety Barriers

I’m a local food eater, fan of small farms and a farmers’ market patron. I’m also a food safety nerd. Now I get to combine the two things I love as much as my wife and my kids, and almost as much as hockey, into a project to uncover food safety barriers that small farmers encounter as they grow, harvest, market and distribute their products.

Usually at the end of a study there is a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal – and only then does the information become available publicly. This project is a bit outside the norm. Through this blog, our NC State project team is going to release information as we collect it; make it available for public and peer consumption; and, create an open-source project.

Throughout the process we’ll be posting documents, data, and anecdotes to relay the information that we identify.  The project kicks off later this week, when we post our draft data collection tools for comment and review. Since we will be working with small farms, our blog entries will also include tips and tricks that our participating farms are using to produce food that is as safe as possible. And there will still be a paper submitted at the end.

The local food economy is partially fueled by a societal push for a greater connection to where food comes fro, an increased interest in agriculture and economic sustainability: but is it microbiologically safe?

Buyers of various sizes, from large retailers or food service groups like Wal-Mart or the school lunch program to smaller grocery outlets and neighborhood bistros, have increased their attention on supplier food safety. One of the strategies food buyers have used to protect themselves is to require suppliers to meet certain food safety standards such as good agricultural practices (GAP) certification, or an audit of practices carried out by a third-party (not usually the buyer themselves, but an agency hired to check on a supplier). When a farm has passed an audit or received their USDA GAP certification it has been verified that the farm has demonstrated adherence to guidance suggested by the Food and Drug Administration’s Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and  Vegetables – at least when the verifier was there. Certification or audit doesn’t ensure that a product is risk-free, but many buyers are requiring the steps prior to entering into agreements with a supplier. Certification is often a market entry barrier.

While the discussion about regulating and implementing food safety guidelines on small farms has been heated, there is a lack of data derived from working farms on what the real barriers are: how much time and money would be required, and/or what process or infrastructure changes might be needed to implement safety risk reduction strategies.  Knowing more about these behavioral barriers and potential economic impacts can help in the design of better materials, resources and aids for farmers. In partnership with Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, we’re hoping to create an evidence-based, practical system for small farms who are trying to reduce public health risks and meet market demands for employing GAPs.

We will be gathering information on costs and barriers from 12 small farms (less than 20 acres, at least 8 commodities) across North Carolina as they go through steps that could lead to USDA GAP certification. These steps include addressing risks and collecting documentation on food safety practices, which are often cited as the biggest issues. Many of our participating farms have chosen to open up what they are doing in hopes of creating and communicating approaches to food safety that are practical for small farms.  Through this project we will identify practice, facilities and system barriers to the current GAP certification process as well as the economic barriers that have been alluded to in previous reports.

Our team will be travelling across the state this summer and conducting biweekly visits to observe on-farm activities and identify risks associated with on-farm processes.  During an initial visit, farmers will lead us through on-farm activities and processes; we’ll talk about some of the potential barriers and collect what participants are already doing to reduce risks. Follow-up visits will refer farmers to possible solutions and track implementation of the risk reduction strategies. Conducting on-site visits to engage producers is something that I’ve been part of for the past decade in working with producers in Canada and North Carolina. The best way to gather info on what is practical and what isn’t is to conduct some reality research and spend time with the farmers who are battling with these issues daily.

In preparation for GAP certification, we will be working alongside the producer and asking questions about how realistic the guidelines are. We’ll be carrying out document review to track costs accrued for the purpose of certification, such as the total costs of building a handwashing sink. Data on other resources (both time and money) will be collected and will include: time required to document; capital investments such as sorting tables or product washing facilities, water testing and fertilizer substitution. Producers will be creating journals (video, audio and text) and documenting their own path to food safety risk reduction, specifically discussing any problems they encounter, tips on solutions and discussing issues they deal with.

All of the data collection instruments and analysis plans will be posted here in upcoming posts. Everything is open, transparent and available for comment.

Carolina Farm Stewardship Association has generously funded this project through a grant they received from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Specialty Crop Block Grant fund.

This entry was posted in Food Safety Culture by Ben Chapman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.