March 20, 2018
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Help available for farmers stressed about new federal safety rules

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
One of the laying hens sits in the coop window at a farm in Monroe.
By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

If you are a Maine farmer who is feeling stressed about meeting the mandates imposed by the federal Food Safety Modernization Act, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension professor has a message for you: Don’t panic.

“There are ingenious, low-cost solutions for pretty much all of the requirements,” Dr. Rob Machado said this week. “You don’t have to build a new [produce] packing house. You could have a mobile packing house and set up some tents to protect you from contamination while you’re packing. There are solutions that are not expensive.”

The 2011 law is the nation’s first significant overhaul of food safety regulations since the 1930s and was designed to prevent food-borne illness. Large farms selling more than a half-million-dollars worth of produce needed to comply with the regulations by January. By 2019, farms that do between $250,000 and $500,000 worth of produce sales will need to comply, and by 2020, small farms that sell between $25,000 and $250,000 worth of produce will be on the hook.

Most Maine farms — 78.6 percent of them, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service’s 2012 data, the most recent year for which they are available — won’t be impacted by the regulations because they sell less than $25,000 of produce each year. Of Maine’s 8,173 farms, 1,306 farms sell between $25,000 and $250,000 worth of produce, and just 198 farms here that sell between $250,000 and $500,000 worth of produce. And there are 242 farms in Maine that sell more than $500,000 worth of produce.

Some farms, such as very small ones or ones that primarily sell produce that will not be consumed raw, may be exempt from some of the law’s mandates. However, experts say even those farms will still be responsible for the safety of their food, meaning nearly all farms in Maine will be affected one way or another.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is providing resources to help farmers understand and meet new produce safety requirement and has provided $1.2 million in grant funds to Maine in the past two years to help educate farmers through trainings, seminars and on-farm readiness reviews. The agency also has established the Produce Safety Network website to support farmers all over the country.

“It’s important that farmers know that the FDA has put resources in place to help them understand what is required, how to meet those requirements and, as important, what is not required,” Stephen Ostroff, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, wrote in a recent BDN OpEd. “We don’t want anyone to be expending resources unnecessarily.”

[Opinion: Maine farmers can find help to meet new food safety rule]

Toward that goal, Machado and his extension colleagues have been busy offering low-cost trainings to farmers who want to know how the law will affect them. The trainings are focused on food safety and heavily based on Good Agricultural Practices, a voluntary audit designed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that aims to verify that fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled and stored as safely as possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards. There are going to be five such trainings offered in Maine this coming year, and Machado would love to see more farmers enroll.

“I’m pretty sure there are farmers out there who don’t even know they need to comply,” he said. “We’re not getting as many farms as you would expect.”

Also, even beyond the trainings, extension educators are happy to share their expertise with farmers who reach out to them.

“If farmers just call us, we will answer their questions,” Machado said. “We help people with anything they need, from an agricultural point of view. One of the big problems that farmers have is that they are afraid of how the FDA visits will be. They don’t know what to expect. It’s a big question mark in their minds. So, we will offer on-farm readiness reviews. We will visit the farms that want to participate and go over everything they can expect the FDA to look for, so they can solve the problems before the visit.”

And they will help brainstorm low-cost solutions for cash-strapped farmers who can’t afford, for example, to install expensive hand-washing stations in their fields. A bucket of clean water, a bucket to catch the water, soap and paper towels would suffice, Machado said. Or renting a portable toilet instead of installing a pricey bathroom could be a solution to the food safety issue of farm hands answering nature’s call too close to the fields where they are working.

And all of these changes will help to protect the safety of the food supply, he said, adding that even very small farms that may be exempt from some of the law’s mandates should be working to make their food supply safer. Many farms get just one chance to be involved in a food borne illness outbreak, he said, because they may not be able to recover from it and will be forced to go out of business.

“The law says, OK, you might not have all this burden that comes from regulation, but you are still responsible for the safety of your food,” Machado said, adding that the best way to do that is by education. “We are all pro-local, at UMaine and at extension. But it doesn’t mean that small farms that produce locally can overlook food safety.”

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