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Time is critical to ensuring all farmers can meet produce-safety goals

by Douglas H. Fisher | September 14, 2009
The whirl of activity in Washington on food-safety issues is deservedly the subject of much concern in the produce industry.

Everyone in the produce chain, from the farmer through the retailer, could be impacted by the various proposals aimed at reducing the risk of foodborne illnesses. Driven by the nationwide attention given to Salmonella in peanuts earlier this year, the temptation in Washington will be to craft the strictest possible regulations, and that may mean trouble for small farmers if not handled correctly.

Members of Congress are likely to paint all produce growers with the same broad brush. Since their attention often is on larger mega-farms, their solutions on food safety are likely to be geared toward those larger producers.

But what of our smaller farms? The average size of New Jersey's 10,000-plus farms is 71 acres, with the biggest single group being between 10 and 49 acres. Almost all are family-owned operations where hard-working fathers, mothers, sons and daughters all contribute to the planting, harvesting and marketing of their products. Assuming the family farmer on 40-some acres can rapidly implement the food-safety measures that a 10,000-acre mega- farm can employ would be a misguided move by Congress.

In New Jersey, we have been working since late 2006 through our Produce Safety Task Force to ensure that our family farmers have the ability to meet whatever new food-safety measures become prevalent, either through Washington mandate or industry practice.

There are two keys to ensuring that this approach will be successful. The first is to deliver the knowledge of food-safety developments and the drive to impart that knowledge to farmers. Fortunately for New Jersey, Rutgers University is a participant in our Produce Safety Task Force and has taken on that challenge, educating almost 1,500 farmers about food-safety basics and the preparations needed to have a third-party audit. And our farmers are signing up for those trainings in record numbers, helping our approach to become known as one of the more proactive throughout the country.

That component requires, proportionately, less time and fewer resources from the small farmer to complete. The second key to ensuring that small farmers are able to meet food-safety standards is to provide them an achievable time frame in which to add the equipment and implement the practices that are necessary. The task force has stressed this point again in providing comments to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration on three pending guidance documents -- one each for leafy greens, tomatoes and melons.

Those three types of produce were chosen for guidance documents because their physical characteristics make them among the more vulnerable to harboring foodborne pathogens. However, if proper handling and sanitation practices aren't observed, many others can be just as susceptible.

Indeed, many of the high-priority suggestions in those proposed FDA guidance documents are already commonplace on New Jersey farms, especially those dealing with training workers to follow sanitary practices. While there is the will to incorporate the others, they are typically the ones in which a large capital investment must be made while still allowing the small farmer to remain profitable.

Our suggestion is to divide farms into small-, medium- and large-size categories, with appropriate timeframes for accomplishing the more capital- intensive approaches to food safety (the largest first and the smallest last). While larger farms have the capital and labor resources to tackle those efforts immediately, smaller farms have more involvement by family members, including the business owner, in daily operations. Which size category a farm fits into should be determined by a combination of farmgate receipts and size of labor workforce over the past three years.

Given this kind of consideration, and with the continued support of the people who are helping us keep our farmers up on the latest food-safety requirements, we will be able to keep our smaller farmers selling to the distributors, processors and retailers who currently buy their produce.

And that will ensure that their customers can enjoy the safe, wholesome and nutritious Jersey Fresh produce they rely upon year in and year out. Ultimately, food-safety regulations can help small farmers, like those that make up the majority of New Jersey operators, to maintain their place in the market, provided some rational thought is given to what it takes for them to implement the necessary steps.

(Douglas H. Fisher is New Jersey's secretary of agriculture.)