From Field to Market: Keeping Food Safety in Mind

Having great produce is essential to success as a market gardener, and food regulations and handling practices are in place to help achieve that. Produce contamination is damaging to both farmer and consumer alike, but attention to food safety can help ensure that everyone stays happy and healthy.

| September 2015

Market Farming Success (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013) is an indispensable guide to market gardening and farming for those in the business of growing and selling food, flowers, herbs or plants. The book has been extensively updated with new information, photos, charts, graphs and business profiles of successful market-farming pioneers. The following excerpt is from chapter seven, which covers food safety practices and procedures from planting to post-harvest.

You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: Market Farming Success.

Food Safety

After several widespread produce contamination outbreaks that killed dozens of people, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which was signed into law in January 2011. In January 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published proposed regulations that would require stringent food safety procedures and inspections for farmers. However, the law provides an exemption for small farms that meet these criteria:

  • Farms with less than $25,000 a year in food sales are exempt.
  • Farms with less than $500,000 annually in gross sales are exempt if more than half of their product sales are to qualified end users, defined as consumers or restaurants and retailers either in-state or within 275 miles of the farm or facility.

At this writing, the proposal is still in the comment stage, and there will probably be several years of phasing in the rules once they become final. But it’s safe to say that as things now stand, most people reading this book are going to be exempt from the FSMA rules. That doesn’t mean exempt from food safety, however. Everyone in the business of growing and selling food should commit themselves to producing food that is safe, wholesome, and nourishing. To grow food that makes customers sick or worse would be devastating emotionally, as well as financially. I urge you, whatever your scale or level of expertise, to learn about food safety and to correct any deficiencies that exist in your practices. You should begin by reading the standards known as Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Good Handling Practices (GHPs). They are largely commonsense recommendations for preventing contamination of food in the field, packing shed, and markets.

There are many potential sources of contamination on a produce farm: soil; irrigation water; manure or improperly composted compost; wild and domestic animals; field worker hygiene; harvesting equipment; transport containers; wash water; unsanitary handling during packing; equipment used to soak, pack, or cut produce; ice; hydrocoolers; transport vehicles; improper storage temperatures; and cross-contamination in storage, display, or preparation. Review these potential weak links in the chain of your production, harvest, washing, and transportation of produce to determine whether your practices need modifications.

Despite the exemption, many small growers may find that buyers want them to provide assurance about their practices. At the least, buyers may ask to see a food safety plan; at the most, they may require GAPs certification by a third-party agency. Even if no one is requiring you to do so, you might as well learn the recommended practices and create a food safety plan for your farm. It can’t hurt, and it will put you much farther down the road to compliance should you ever need it.

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