Angie Newsome / Carolina Public Press

This story originally appeared here and is published by Carolina Public Press through a content-sharing agreement with North Carolina Health News.

By Rose Hoban

As new federal food-safety rules loom beyond the horizon, hundreds of farmers and food processors gathered this week at the state fairgrounds in Raleigh for N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler’s annual Food Safety Forum.

“We all realize food safety is a public health issue,” Troxler said. “But it’s also an agriculture issue.”

Since passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in January 2011, Troxler has been using the forum to help farmers and processors understand what will be expected of them by the new law.

But he’s also encouraged people from the state agricultural community to weigh in as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration create rules and regulations mandated by the law.

“This really became a focus,” Troxler said. “The state’s partnership with the FDA will be instrumental, and it’s actually in the law that the partnership has to exist. We’re building relationships and sorting out what the partnership will look like.

“It’s kind of a shotgun marriage, but we’ve got to deal with it.”

From the dirt

The 2012 recall of cantaloupes grown in eastern North Carolina found contaminated with the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes and a similar recall of melons from a Colorado farm the year before were still fresh in many people’s minds at the forum.

According to the FDA, the North Carolina cantaloupes were sold in states from Florida to Maine. And even though the recall affected only one farm’s produce, the rest of the industry felt ripples. No one was sickened by that 2012 recall, but the 2011 Colorado farm recall led to dozens of infections and at least one death.

It’s recalls such as these – going back to the highly publicized recalls of bagged California lettuce in the 1990s – that spurred Congress to create the FSMA.

All cantaloupe growers felt the effects of the most recent recalls, said Matt Solana, vice president of operations for the Jackson Farming Company, which grows cantaloupes, watermelons and honey dews, as well as strawberries and a host of other fruits and vegetables.

Jackson Farming has farms in North Carolina and several other states.

“When the [Colorado] issue in 2011 came up, we were already done for the seasons, which was a good thing, because the market crashed,” Solana said.

“Then last year, there was a recall of North Carolina product. There wasn’t any of ours in there, but the phone started ringing off the hook: ‘Is this your cantaloupe? Can I serve it to my church group on Sunday?’ ‘Yes, ma’am, you can.’ ‘Would you come over and eat it with me?’”

Solana said a decade ago, his company’s food-safety regimen consisted of cleaning up, sweeping and hosing down the packing facility with bleach every day and washing the fruit. But that time, and the small expense, was driven by market demands, not legislation.

Click on these links to read and comment on the Proposed Produce Standards Rule  or the Proposed Rule for Preventive Controls for Human Food.

“Eastern cantaloupe gets wet,” he said. “You have mud and dirt and that. So the chain stores wanted brushed, washed and chlorinated cantaloupe to come into the store.”

But this past year, Solana’s company spent more than a half-million dollars to enclose its packing house and put stainless steel on every packing surface, and FSMA rules aren’t even in place yet.

The changes drove Jackson Farming’s food-safety costs up about a thousand fold.

“Take away the $330,000 that we just spent to redo the cantaloupe line and shed, and it’s $240,000 in expenses this year in people and training and equipment and chemicals,” Solana said, noting that those are expenses that will eventually drive up the cost of a piece of fruit as farmers look for return on their investment.

But the reality is that measures taken by farmers might not eliminate the possibility of a recall.

“You’re dealing with products that are grown in the dirt, so ‘from farm to fork’ means from dirt to your kitchen counter,” Solana said.

“But how many hands touched it in the grocery store? You’re not the only person who’s touched that cantaloupe. It goes in the shopping cart that’s had multiple use, it goes down a belt in a grocery store that’s had multiple use, before it gets home to your place.”

Small processors affected

It’s expenses such as this that worry Scott Marlow, an agricultural economist who heads the Rural Advancement Foundation International, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for small family farms.

Marlow’s not a fan of FSMA, in particular because he believes that, in the end, large farm organizations will have an easier time finding the money to adhere to the regulations than the small farmers he represents.

“There is no way for us to eliminate the existence of pathogens; it’s not going to happen,” he said. “What we need to do is design a way of getting product safely from farms to people.

“But the way that FSMA is being implemented is by increasing the regulatory burden. It becomes a fixed cost that’s high, and it becomes harder to do for small producers.”

Marlow said the law is also the problem, for reasons related to cost.

“Let’s look at where the food-safety outbreaks have come from,” he said. “Are they coming from small-scale producers? No. They’re coming form the large-scale plants, the large-scale peanut processor in Georgia, the large-scale salad producers in California.”

“Smaller-scale producers are not viable because they can’t absorb that added fixed cost. So you have one plant that everyone has to go to,” Marlow said, explaining that having everyone processing through a large plant increases the chances of cross-contamination.

“If I buy beef direct from a farmer and his beef has E. coli, I get sick and my family gets sick and that’s it,” he said. “But if that farmer sends that cow to a processing plant that handles thousands of cows a day, then thousands of cows and, subsequently, thousands of people get exposed to it.”

Marlow said the goal should be to create a process that minimizes the possibility of cross-contamination, and that, in many cases, smaller is better.

Exemptions may not help

According to the FDA speakers at the food-safety forum this week, the proposed rules have exemptions for farms that have less than a half-million dollars in annual sales.

But Roland McReynolds, executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, said while a half-million dollars sounds like a lot, it’s pretty easy for a small farm to top that and thus be ineligible for an exemption.

“If you have 100 acres of corn and beans and a one-acre you-pick strawberry operation, your total sales of food will be well over a half million,” he said, noting that it takes that much volume for a farmer to make a modest profit.

And McReynolds said it’s especially easy for small cooperatives to reach a half-million dollars in sales.

“Several farms together – like a multi-farm community-supported agriculture group or Eastern Carolina Organics in Durham – if you’re one of those kinds of businesses, the USDA economic analysis says you need at least a million in sales to be economically viable, and that’s what they’re doing,” he said.

“They’ll all be subject to these rules,” McReynolds said. “So the exemption won’t mean much.”

He called the new rules a “serious threat,” and said many in the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services are privately quite concerned, as are the many small farmers in the state who have driven the local-food movement that’s revitalized large swaths of North Carolina agriculture.

McReynolds said there needs to be balance with food safety, but that the FDA may be “throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

“We need to be eating more fresh fruits and vegetables,” he said, and rules that might limit accessibility to fresh produce would, in the end, be counterproductive.

“The public health crisis around our food today is about obesity and heart disease and diabetes and cancer. That’s what’s killing 800,000 people a year.”

FDA officials who spoke at the food-safety forum in Raleigh were explaining how the rules would affect farmers, but they also encouraged input from the community.

“We feel very strongly that food safety is a priority, and is [farmers’] priority as well,” said Jenny Scott, an official with the FDA Office of Food Safety.

“Farmers should take a look at what we’re requiring in the proposed rules with regard to food safety,” she said.

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