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USDA's Merrigan urges industry to embrace Know Your Farmer campaign

by Joan Murphy | September 21, 2010
WASHINGTON -- The produce industry needs to support the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign as the Obama administration continues to put fruits and vegetables "front and center" at the USDA, Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of agriculture, said Sept. 16 at a meeting of the United Fresh Produce Association, here.

There's been a "sea change at USDA" on produce, and policymakers see a diet rich in fruit and vegetables as a powerful tool in the fight against the rising obesity epidemic, she said, calling it a "class myth" that low-income people cannot afford fresh fruits and vegetables.

Ms. Merrigan and Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius spoke on the last day of United Fresh's three-day Washington Public Policy Conference.

The USDA launched the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign last year to support local and regional food systems and trigger economic opportunities on a community level. It has no budget, no full-time staff and no office, but it's a bridge to help local and regional food systems, the second highest official at the USDA told the 500 attendees at the conference.

The produce industry "needs to step in here" and support the program as it is one part of the administration's push to expand markets for the fruit and vegetable industry, Ms. Merrigan said. Change is unsettling to some, "but it's about seizing the moment."

Buying locally grown produce is causing large produce distributors and retailers to think differently about how to ensure that small-scale farmers meet food-safety standards.

At a Sept. 15 WPPC session, buyers and a government official said that the industry is finding ways to promote locally grown and help farmers meet food-safety buying specifications.

It's "tricky business" for large distributors to change company standards for small farms without the fear of sacrificing food safety, said Michael Jantschke, director of food safety at Pro*Act, a Monterey, CA-based distributor. A leading produce distributor to the foodservice industry, Pro*Act has adopted its existing food-safety standards to suppliers of locally grown producers.

Small farms are diverse, tend to be seasonal, can be under-capitalized and lack know-how and resources to develop sophisticated food-safety programs, he said at the hourlong session, The Role of Buyers in Assuring Small Farm Food Safety.

"Everyone wants locally grown produce," Mr. Jantschke said. "It's driven by consumer demand," while buyers are being pressed to supply consumers with the highest quality product.

In 2009, there was little consensus on how to proceed with buying from small farmers, and the company did not want to "buy on faith." Pro*Act took about a year to write the new guidelines -- rolled out in February -- for suppliers of locally grown produce.

To accommodate small farmers, the company eased documentation and recordkeeping for small operations, and in return agreed to step up its on- farm presence of these niche suppliers, he explained. There's a need for a stronger on-farm presence if buyers can't rely as much on record audits.

Atlanta-based fast-food chain Chick-Fil-A relies on restaurant operators to choose from a list of distributors that supply approved brands, said C. Harold King, senior manager of food and product safety.

"We see an opportunity for small farms," but they have to meet certain criteria, such as be able to compete during certain times of the year on quality, he said.

While some people believe that the buy local trend is waning, Al Murray, New Jersey's assistant secretary of agriculture, said, "I don't see the market cooling at all."

Mr. Murray said that buyers should convey food-safety requirements, familiarize themselves with the farm operations and help provide training programs.

It may be difficult to get small farmers to embrace new food-safety techniques," Mr. Murray said. "Unless it's universally demanded by industry, farmers may ignore it."