November 08, 2019
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Maine farmers overcome challenges to comply with new federal food safety regulations

Willis Ryder Arnold | Maine Public
Willis Ryder Arnold | Maine Public
At Goranson's Farm in Dresden, Johanson evaluates produce and reflects on the two year effort to comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act.

On a gray fall day at Goranson’s Farm in Dresden, Carl Johanson evaluated a crop of soon-to-be harvested cabbage, lettuce and spinach, reflecting on the two year effort to comply with federal food safety regulations.

“The prospect of getting shut down was kind of hanging over our heads prior to the inspection,” Johanson said.

The farm passed an inspection for regulatory compliance this fall, but Johanson said the process caused some anxiety.

Goranson’s is one of roughly 20 Maine farms inspected this year for compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act, a federal law enacted in 2011 that is aimed at preventing food-borne illnesses. It is the first industrywide regulatory change that produce farmers have faced in 80 years.

For some Maine farmers, meeting the new requirements has been a challenge. Johanson said the farm has had to learn the regulations, make significant infrastructural changes, develop new farming procedures and implement new forms of safety documentation.

To meet these requirements Johanson, his family and farm workers have torn apart animal housing, sterilized it and rebuilt the space as a vegetable processing area. They have developed new harvesting procedures and created mobile handwashing stations to be deployed in the field.

Johanson estimates that the changes needed to conform to new regulations cost the farm more than $50,000 in labor, supplies, infrastructure and lost crop yield.

The farm began this work without any financial help from the government, without a clear set of instructions for meeting the requirements.

“A lot was put on us to find the right products to use, like finding a cold-water detergent to wash our [vegetable] bins,” said Johanson’s brother, Goran. “It would have been great if there was a collective resource we could go to, to help farmers find these products that they know they’re going to need to meet these standards.”

And Goranson’s Farm is not alone. Linda Titus, who works for the agricultural consulting service AgMatters LLC and helps educate farmers about the law’s requirements, said the farmers’ initial response to the legislation was “fear, reluctance to accept any top-down law, resistance.” But Titus acknowledged that produce farmers in Maine have a lot at stake.

“This is their livelihood, and this is their reputation on the line,” Titus said, referring to the potential recall or business closure should farms not meet the law’s standards. “This is huge. This isn’t just a traffic ticket, ‘oh it’ll get posted.’ You could lose your business your livelihood.”

Since the rules were first announced, there have been improvements to the law’s rollout. Leah Cook, the food inspection supervisor for the Maine Department of Agriculture, said that although no federal funding has gone directly to farmers to implement the requirements, some assistance has gone to states to help educate the farmers about how best to comply. She said inspectors also work directly with farmers prior to inspection to help them understand what’s expected of them.

“Believe it or not we are trying to help farmers,” Cook said.

Cook, who has been an organic grower herself, said she is sympathetic to farmer’s frustrations and encourages them to call her with any questions.

“We are trying to go out there and say look there is this federal regulation, you’re fully covered by it, but lets help you get where you need to get, and lets help you understand this so you’re not just blindly following what someone’s told you to do,” she said.

Some farmers have found that the law’s rollout has brought positive changes. Goren and Carl Johanson said the Maine Department of Agriculture has been helpful in navigating regulations, and that certain aspects of farm operations have become more efficient as a result. The said limiting the frequency that workers touch vegetable totes has reduced the likelihood of contamination, and also cut down prep time for going to market.

“We do five markets a week, and if you add up all that time it can really do some damage to your bottom line,” he said.

Most Maine farms selling an average of more than $500,000 of produce a year have already been inspected for compliance with federal law. Inspections for the next tier of smaller farms begins next spring. The final, smallest group face inspection in 2021. Two talks will be given on Food Safety Modernization Act compliance in early November.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.



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