This article originally appeared in the March/April 2018 edition of Organic Broadcaster.
By Bailey Webster
If you’re a veggie farmer, you know it’s coming. Whether you’re the proactive type or the bury-your-head-in-the-sand type, the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule is likely to affect you in the near future. The good news is, it’s not going to be that scary. And there are lots of farmers working hard to translate the regulation into workable strategies that will make their farms more efficient and profitable.
When it comes to the FSMA Produce Safety Rule, farms fall into three categories: not covered, covered, and qualified exempt. Here’s a quick-and-dirty rundown on what each one means:
Farms not covered by the Rule have no legal obligation to do anything for FSMA.
Farms that are covered by the rule must have one person on staff who has successfully completed a Produce Safety Alliance (PSA) Grower Training Course or equivalent training. Growers who have completed the seven-hour PSA Grower Training Course are eligible to receive a certificate from the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO). This certificate does not expire, and belongs to the individual, not the farm. If that employee should leave the farm, another person from the farm would have to attend the training and receive a certificate.
Farms that are qualified exempt must keep sales records documenting that they do not reach the minimum sales requirement for covered produce. Qualified exempt farms must also notify consumers of the complete business address of the farm where the produce is grown, harvested, packed, and held.
To figure out which category your farm falls into, check this handy flowchart:
Hans and Katie Bishop know an opportunity when they see one. As a result, they’re taking uncertainty about the new FSMA Produce Safety Rule in stride. Vegetable farmers in Atlanta, Ill., they see the new Rule as a chance to make their farm more efficient and more profitable.
The Bishops farm alongside Hans’ father, Dave Bishop, as part of PrairiErth Farms. Dave raises livestock and row crops, while Katie and Hans grow vegetables for a CSA and farmers market. The two operations are legally separate entities, and their operations are in separate areas physically. Hans and Katie should be able to be qualified exempt under the Produce Safety Rule, as long as they can show that Dave’s business is separate and doesn’t impact their production, harvest, or handling methods in any way. Dave’s income would put them over the $500,000 threshold for qualified exemption.
Since they aren’t sure if they will be able to be qualified exempt, they’re taking a proactive approach to the Rule. “We’d rather be prepared than be surprised by an inspection in the middle of July!” Katie said. “Even if we don’t think we’re going to have to do it, chances are we will down the road,” as their business continues to grow.
The Bishops are in the process of putting up a large building, part of which will be their new pack shed. It’s the perfect opportunity for them to take a look at their current food safety practices and implement new systems to bring them into compliance with the Rule.
“It feels like this is going to help us put systems in place to make everything on the farm work better,” Katie said. “We won’t have to do it this year, but we want to get a head start now, when we don’t have the pressure of having to be compliant.”
They’re not too worried about compliance because they’ve talked to other farmers who have been to the Produce Safety Alliance (PSA) Grower Training Course, who say it’s not as bad as it seems. “Steve Pincus (of Tipi Produce) walked into a class really worried about the things that they would have to change on their farm. He walked away saying, ‘Oh wow, this is totally doable! Maybe a change here and there, but we’re already ahead of the game,” Katie said.
The Bishops also see themselves as leaders in the organic farming community in their area, and they want to jump in without fear so they can be good role models for other farmers. They hope to bring others to the pack shed to show them what they are doing, and lead the way.
Katie admitted that their farm is lacking in certain areas in terms of recordkeeping. “We haven’t been super motivated to do it. It’s not an income-producing activity, so it gets pushed to the back. FSMA will provide the framework and structure for making positive changes on the farm.”
Open Hands Farm
Ben Doherty and Erin Johnson own Open Hands Farm in Northfield, Minn., where they market vegetables through a CSA and wholesale accounts. They’ve been focused on food safety for a long time, and passed their first GAP audit for their wholesale root crops in the summer of 2017.
Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) are voluntary audits that verify that fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled, and stored as safely as possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards. GAP audits are administered by the USDA. Many produce customers, such as wholesale suppliers and restaurants, require the farms that they purchase from to have GAP audits.
Ben and Erin started their farm in 2006, the year of the E. coli outbreak in spinach. They had lots of customers asking if their produce was safe to eat, so they understood the importance of food safety right off the bat.
“We like to tell people we’ve done everything we can proactively,” Ben said. They took a GAP workshop early on. “GAP makes sense from a ‘keeping people healthy’ standpoint. It fits right in with the goal of helping people to be healthier.”
Because of their commitment to food safety and their GAP certification, Ben and Erin aren’t too worried about being in compliance with the FSMA Produce Safety Rule. Many of the requirements are transferrable, and they have a great system of recordkeeping to show that they actively practice good food safety.
The Open Hands Farm crew use a Gmail account, Google Sheets and Google Docs to track all of their food safety activities. They log these activities in an electronic tablet in the pack shed. Ben joked that he’s lucky to have employees who are more computer savvy than he is to come up with their recordkeeping system. The farm may have to make some adjustments in order to show compliance with the FSMA Rule, but they’re starting with a great foundation.
Vermont Valley Community Farm
David and Barb Perkins of Vermont Valley Community Farm know that they will be covered by the FSMA Produce Safety Rule, and they’re taking a more staid approach to it. Their son, Eric, who works on the farm, attended a PSA Grower Training in January. That was their first step toward compliance.
David, not being the excitable type, is waiting to see how the Rule will change before jumping headfirst into changing up the operation. “My perspective in this is when they come up with a new program and requirements, they sort of evolve. If you jump too quick to make changes based on early information, it may not be what you need in the end.”
The Perkinses market through a CSA, and they also sell seed potatoes. David said they have never felt the need to get a GAP audit. They already have strong food safety practices in place, and getting into compliance with the Rule will mean “adding a bureaucratic level that we will just have to do,” David said—i.e., documenting practices they already have in place.
Bailey Webster is a certified Produce Safety Alliance trainer. Reach her in the MOSES office at 715-778-5775 or email email@example.com.