Jul 9, 2020
Study finds food safety practices benefit small farmers

The costs of implementing food safety practices to prevent foodborne illnesses have been viewed as a threat to the financial well-being of fruit and vegetable producers – particularly small farms, which must pay a higher percentage of their annual sales than larger farms to meet safety standards.

But a new Cornell study finds that when small-scale farmers are trained in food safety protocols and develop a farm food safety plan, new markets open up to them, leading to an overall gain in revenue.

for good agricultural practices (GAPs), to minimize microbial food safety hazards for fresh fruits and vegetables. Though the recommendations for farmers were voluntary, many buyers – including grocery stores and wholesale buyers, farm-to-school programs and food distributors – demanded growers follow GAPs guidelines as a requisite for doing business. For verification, buyers commonly request that growers get a third-party audit.

The National GAPs Program and Cornell Cooperative Extension began offering a multiday GAPs training program in 2008 to help growers create a farm food safety plan, a necessary step to passing an audit.

In the study, food scientists, extension educators and economists surveyed 80 New York state farms that had previously participated in the multi-day GAPs trainings. Cornell Cooperative Extension educators visited farms and conducted in-person interviews with farmers.

Educators asked the farmers about costs of implementing GAPs, which can include washing stations, coolers and new employees to monitor and record food safety steps and actions. They also asked about the financial benefits.

“What we found is that, consistent with the literature,” Schmit said, “the relative cost burden is higher for smaller-scale producers, but they also have more relative benefits of increasing sales to new markets and buyers.”

Also, when profitability of small and large farms were compared, the researchers found the relative benefits from getting GAPs certified were roughly the same overall.

In 2015, the FDA completed its Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule, a set of specific actions growers must take to prevent contamination from foodborne pathogens. While GAPs certification is voluntary, market-driven and requires an audit, FSMA compliance is mandatory and farms receive inspections.

FSMA compliance has begun on a rolling basis based on the size of farms, though small farms with average annual food sales of $500,000 or less and farms that grow certain types of produce can qualify for an exemption and don’t require compliance. This makes continued GAPs training, audits and certification necessary for smaller producers.

“It is important to note that markets drove food safety requirements before FSMA,” Bihn said, “and will likely continue to drive markets given that FSMA exempts or excludes certain farms.”

In the future the researchers hope to do similar types of surveys and analyses in other parts of the country, specific to the FSMA implementation.

Co-authors include Gretchen Wall, a coordinator and Northeast regional extension associate at the Produce Safety Alliance; and Elizabeth Newbold, center administrator for the Northeast Center to Advance Food Safety.

– Krishna Ramanujan, Cornell University

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