June 19, 2018
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Maine farmers hit with new federal food safety rules

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Carl Johanson, 26, plays with his dog at Goranson Farm in Dresden. Some owners of small locally owned farms are finding that new food safety regulations can be financially burdensome.
By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

The family farmers who have worked the land at Goranson Farm in Dresden since the 1960s say they take care to grow produce for their customers in a careful manner, tilling the fields with draft horses and recently implementing solar power.

But lately, mandates imposed by the federal Food Safety Modernization Act have meant that a lot of their attention, and financial resources, have gone toward complying with regulations and building expensive new infrastructure rather than farming.

“I think a lot of farmers are a little bitter about it,” Goran Johanson of the Goranson Farm said this week. “Everything in the act does make sense. Having no standing water. Getting your well water tested. These are all things that really should be done, but it’s a huge financial burden on us as farmers.”

The law, which was signed in 2011 by President Obama, is the first significant overhaul of food safety regulations since the 1930s and was designed to prevent food borne illness. It is being implemented by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and state agencies, and this month, large farms that sell more than a half-million dollars worth of produce are the first that will have to comply with the regulations. By 2019, farms that do between $250,000 and $500,000 worth of produce sales will need to comply, and by 2020, small businesses that sell between $25,000 and $250,000 worth of produce will be on the hook.

Farms that sell less than $25,000 worth of fresh produce may be exempt from the law’s requirements, as would be farms whose produce is not likely to be consumed raw, such as potato farms.

Maine farmers generally have been slow to make the changes required by the law, according to Dave Colson, the agricultural services director for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. Eventually, nearly all farmers here will have to show that they’re compliant with Good Agricultural Practices standards, which aim to verify that fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled, and stored as safely as possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards. At the Goranson Farm, for example, the farmers have to build a new produce packing house that will have washable surfaces on everything, which is an expensive investment.

“One of the faults of the law is that there could potentially be a lot of infrastructure needs necessary, yet there’s no mechanism for grants for farms to get in compliance with it,” Colson said. “Eventually, this will affect every farmer. If you had an inspector who came onto the farm and saw things they didn’t like, they could shut you down right there.”

The MOFGA official believes that the government means to encourage farmers into compliance instead of forcing them into it with the threat of drastic action. Still, he said, the law’s mandates seem like a pricey and time-consuming solution to the problem of food safety. The federal regulations will treat small family farms in Maine with no history of food contamination the same as huge farms in California’s Central Valley, which grow a third of the country’s produce.

Roughly one in six people gets sick every year from food eaten in the U.S. according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2015 report from the agency found that produce accounted for the most outbreak-associated illnesses that year, in particular seeded vegetables such as cucumbers and tomatoes, as well as leafy greens.

In recent years, foodborne illness outbreaks have caused recalls of such diverse foods as bread, apple cider, chicken, raw tuna, alfalfa seeds, cucumbers, celery and lettuce. And according to the CDC, contamination can occur at any point from food production to food preparation.

Jason Lilley, a sustainable agriculture professional with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, believes that the law’s requirements might be onerous to farmers but ultimately will help prevent foodborne illnesses. He is one of the extension educators offering trainings to Maine farmers to help them get into compliance.

“People are frustrated because it’s the new thing they are being told they have to do, but there are resources,” he said. “If people are paying attention and being proactive, it’s not an unbearable new ask. When you consider what it’s like to have a foodborne illness, or to have your business responsible for causing one, it’s worthwhile to take those few extra precautions, in my opinion.”

Peter Ricker of Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner, which sells apples all over Maine, agreed. Even though doing the paperwork to show the farm is meeting safety standards can feel onerous, it’s worth it, he said.

“It is a headache. It adds a lot of extra costs to our operation,” he said. “But I’d rather have this headache than have somebody get sick. What it boils down to is that it’s the safety of our food supply, so that’s understandable.”

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