SANDUSKY, Ohio — Food recalls and food poisoning often are some of the most expensive costs to a produce farmer and can be enough to put him or her out of business.
On a national level, sources say millions of people are sickened each year by the top sources of foodborne illness, costing tens of billions of dollars in medical expenses and time off work.
But with some foresight and good planning, produce growers can ensure themselves and their customers that what they produce is as safe as possible.
On Jan. 16, the opening day of the Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association annual congress, internationally recognized “retail guru” John Stanley delivered a common sense message on food safety called Making Food Safety Work for You and Your Wallet.
Food safety has been a major topic in all major news media the past few years and many types of legislation have been introduced to ensure food is produced and marketed safely. They include names like the Food Safety Modernization Act, the National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.
“We’ve got enough legislation, everywhere you go there’s legislation,” Stanley said.
The challenge producers need to face, he said, is gaining consumer confidence and trust. While legislation can sometimes help, he echoed sentiments shared by Ohio growers who say that a one-size-fits-all government program is not best for Ohio or other individual states.
The leafy greens program, for example, got its start in California and was suited for large California-style produce operations, Stanley said. Ohio is the opposite in many ways, with a combination of large growers, but also many small-scale producers.
“There is a lot of difference in California — the thinking process in California and the lifestyle process in California compared to the lifestyle and thinking process in Ohio,” he said.
He pointed to a map of Ohio and insisted that any food safety plan for Ohio “has to be designed for that state.”
Lots of support
The leading farm and produce organizations in Ohio are in fact supporting a food safety program of their own called Ohio Produce Marketing Agreement. It has been in the works at least the past three years, but is gaining momentum as an accredited food safety program.
Stanley, and other speakers on the opening day, went as far as to say that a food safety program will be a requirement if you wish to sell produce in the future.
“Retailers will not buy from you if you are not certified in the future,” he said.
Karl Kolb, one of the lead organizers of the agreement, said 25 or so producers already are signed up and participating. But he expects that number to grow exponentially over the coming months and years.
Part of the process is petitioning the Ohio Department of Agriculture to give final approval of the program as a certified marketing agreement. Some 200 petition signatures are needed and the program must demonstrate its effectiveness and commitment to strong standards. OPMA currently operates on a de facto status, with its leaders confident full approval will granted in the near future.
At that point, “we will have our own plan and that will have the force of law,” Kolb said.
Many different plans
The Ohio plan will not necessarily replace other marketing plans or federal requirements, but is expected to replace third-party audit fees with a more affordable inspection option for smaller-size producers. The agreement shares universal standards, but is implemented in a scale-appropriate, three-tier approach.
“You need (a food safety plan) for one principal reason and that is to protect your investment,” Kolb said. “It’s not if you’re going to get a recall, it’s when and when it’s going to come. It’s (your certification) your first and best and only line of investment at protecting your investment.”
Stanley said consumers want to be assured of the quality and safety of the foods for sale, but currently, consumer confidence is very low. Only 47 percent of Americans are confident their food is safe, according to survey information from the International Food Information Council.
The Ohio plan, he said, is one that is developed by Ohioans, provides access to new markets and “peace of mind to the consumer.”
The Ohio plan is supported by organizations like OPGMA, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation and Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.
In previous interviews, Kolb has said the plan has the potential to reach markets further than Ohio and could become a model for other states wishing to make marketing plans that fit their growers.
“I applaud the government for wanting to do great things (nationally) but I think we’re ahead of the power curb,” he said.
Lisa Schacht, president of OPGMA, said the plan was one of the biggest projects of the year, and continues to be a popular topic.
“OPMA is definitely a project we worked to see come to cooperative fruition,” she said. “It is designed to address those circumstances associated with size and scale.”
Additional signatures supporting the Ohio plan were gathered at the conference. The number of signatures and the review of the program by the ag department will be reported as that information becomes available.