BELLEVUE • No one wants to see their customers get sick from eating fruits or vegetables that have been grown on their farms. Yet every year one in six Americans gets sick from a food-borne illness.
The Food and Drug Administration has proposed food safety rules to meet requirements in the Food Safety Modernization Act that was passed in 2011.
Arlie Sommer, a sales representative with Idaho’s Bounty, supports the intent of the law, but is deeply concerned with some of the provisions. She has been speaking at organic production tours and meetings to alert growers about the proposed rules and to encourage them to submit comments. The public comment period on the proposed rules has been extended to September 16, 2013.
Onion growers in the Treasure Valley have been the most vocal about a proposal within the rules that would govern how much bacteria could be in irrigation water. FDA officials will meet with onion growers in Ontario, Ore., on August 12 to discuss those concerns.
But Sommer said other fresh produce growers should also be concerned.
“It’s very expensive to adhere to the guidelines and many of our producers make very little money,” she said.
The rules do provide an exemption for small farms and facilities with annual food sales valued at $500,000 or less. Any farm, however, that is linked to a food-borne illness — regardless of size — would lose its exemption.
Judd McMahon is not taking any chances. The owner of Wood River Organics has already established a documentation chain that will likely meet the preventive control systems in the proposal. That proposal is closely modeled after the HACCP system already used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for meat packing plants. That systematic approach attempts to minimize the risk of pathogens or other contaminants in any final food product.
McMahon hadn’t really thought much about food safety until he looked into turning tomatoes from his small farm into tomato sauce that he would market through the winter. He took a Better Process Control School class for canning that focused on how to prevent botulism, but also showed him some of the control industrial food producers have in place to prevent problems.
While he gave up on making tomato sauce, he re-evaluated his own farm to identify control points where he could limit the potential for problems. Moving from cutting lettuce by hand with scissors to a mechanical harvester also provided impetus to put some sort of food safety plan into place. Rather than taking multiple cuts from each plant, as they did with scissors, now lettuce is cut once and tilled under to make way for a new planting.
McMahon has established start and stop points for the processing operations, and keeps detailed records for when produce is harvested, when it goes into the refrigerator, and how long it is out to be washed and sorted. If a problem would develop, he would be able to quickly determine if it was related to refrigeration or to cleaning; and then be able to discard the amount of produce handled within a two-hour time period rather than the whole day’s harvest.
Dick Parrot, an organic producer from Hollister, attended a tour sponsored by the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides at Wood River Organics. He was most interested in the production side of the business but was impressed by McMahon’s documentation.
“He’s got paperwork to prove what is happening,” Parrot said. “He has accepted food safety and he’s doing it.”
McMahon estimates that he spends two hours a day just for documentation — not what he wanted to do when he came back to start farming near Bellevue. But rather than just doing the paperwork to comply with food safety concerns; McMahon has found ways to mine the same data set for information that will help him improve the operation.
For example, he uses the data to determine when plants have been ready to harvest based on planting date, and which varieties have performed the best. He can also see if the cleaning or sorting process is slowing down packaging.
“I track everything from seed to sale,” he said. “When it was seeded, weeded, irrigated, what processes it went through in the packing shed, how long it took to get packaged. Where can I limit my exposure to potential problems?”