By Matt Reese
The fresh spinach in the glass case at the grocery store has been handled with the utmost care from the farm through the present moment as it sits in display case. Mist floats down to shower the greens with cool water when a filthy sparrow swoops down from the rafters and through the mist of water, spraying dirty bird germs all over that previously clean spinach. No one sees this happen. A customer gets sick. Who gets the blame?
Unfortunately, whether it is really their fault or not, the blame often falls upon the farm. And as more scrutiny falls on farms, many of the larger Ohio produce operations have been required by their buyers to meet specific food safety standard operating procedures. For many operations this has resulted in the need to employ a full-time food safety quality assurance person to manage the complexities of the requirements that often have no backing in science or any potential for increased revenue for the farmer. With everyone doing something a little differently than everyone else, a more uniform system would help better protect farms and customers.
With this in mind, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is under pressure to do something at the national level for consistent food safety standards. One of the possibilities was the National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (NLGMA). This would require produce growers across the country to adhere to growing policies and practices developed for large California growers, an unrealistic task for many Ohio operations.
The NLGMA is impossibly narrow and restrictive for Ohio’s broad array of produce farms. With the possibility of such a standard being adopted, the Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association (OPGMA) had to, out of necessity for the protection of its members, proactively develop a workable alternative that was inclusive of all types of operations while providing the necessary teeth to improve food safety procedures. The result is the Ohio Fresh Produce Marketing Agreement that is being developed by a collaborative effort of OPGMA, the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, Innovative Farmers of Ohio, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, Ohio State University and others.
“What really got us moving on this was the NLGMA proposal and the federal pressure to get something passed,” said Bob Jones, Jr. who sits on the OPGMA Board. “The Food and Drug Administration went on a 13-state tour to learn about this issue and Ohio was the last stop. We took them to an Amish farm, an Amish produce auction, then we went to a very large operation and a 20-acre roadside stand vegetable operation run by one guy and a few helpers. They could not believe the diversity they saw. We are trying to help the FDA because it is to our benefit to help them. If we don’t, we’ll get something that will put growers out of business.”
This Ohio marketing agreement proposes a three-tiered statewide food safety standard for growers and handlers designed to represent the unique geographic nature, diverse culture, and specialty crops of Ohio. The standards do not change at each level; they are only implemented differently based on the specifics of each operation.
“It is a voluntary agreement, but our goal is to be valuable enough that you will want to sign on. With the agreement being voluntary, and the fact that it was designed by Ohio growers, it is much more palatable to small growers than a federal mandate would be,” Jones said. “This is about working collaboratively using science to produce a robust food safety system that protects the consumer and the producer. We have to make this flexible enough to be able to work with whatever the FDA comes up with.”
The details are still being worked out with regard to the four different standards that are covered in the marketing agreement – water quality, traceability, composting and good handling practices. These are being hashed out by a major technical review board that oversees 8 minor technical review boards representing specific types of operations including tree fruits, small fruit, muck crops, Amish/Mennonite, organic and others. Each minor technical review board is comprised of individual producers from that sector.
“These groups are given latitude with what they want to do within the framework, but they have to adhere to the standards set by the major technical review board,” Jones said. “Everything is in the process of getting more refined. We spent a lot of time on it early in the spring, but a lot of this is on hold during the growing season. The goal is to have a draft ready for the January OPGMA conference.”
Once the draft is completed, it must be reviewed by the Ohio Department of Agriculture and move through the process (which includes an industry vote) for the development of a market agreement.
“The goal is to have the marketing agreement operating for the 2011 growing season,” Jones said. “Most people have been very receptive to this so far. There is a real sense of frustration out there. Growers understand that food safety is important and they want to do the right thing, but they do not have a target to shoot for. Now we’ll have something to offer some guidance and they had the opportunity to help write it.”
Those who participate in the marketing agreement will never be fully free from the risk of a dirty grocery store sparrow, but they will be able to reassure their customers that they are going the extra mile to produce safe food.
“We need to let consumers know that the industry is working to keep them safe. The consumer wants to be able to eat without fear,” Jones said. “This will be a tremendous opportunity to say, ‘Here’s what we’re doing for you.’”
Three-tier system in the Ohio Fresh Produce Marketing Agreement
|Tier I||Operators with direct farm sales, roadside farm markets, farmer’s markets, CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture) and other operators who do not wish to participate in the other tier levels but desire to demonstrate the Ohio food safety standard||OSU GAP training and the core standards||Voluntary compliance and random inspections|
|Tier II||Operators with intra-state sales, designed for produce auction – type operations and Ohio produce handlers in general||OSU GAP training and the core standards||Mandatory compliance and scheduled inspections|
|Tier III||Operators at the inter-state and national level.||OSU GAP training and the core standards||Mandatory inspections and unannounced inspections|