Do you pay attention to food news? I certainly do. I can’t help but read every story I see that talks about some aspect of agriculture, be it drought, commodity prices, or farm policy. I am also keenly interested in how food gets from the farm to my table and yours, which of course means the entire food supply chain: Farmers, truckers, processors, distributors, grocery stores and restaurants.
Food safety comes up time and again as one of the greatest challenges the industry faces as it attempts to get food from farm to table. It’s not a particularly sexy or exciting subject, but it is incredibly important. According to the Centers for Disease Control, roughly 1 in 6 Americans will get sick, 128,000 will be hospitalized, and 3,000 will die of foodborne illnesses every year.
Since we purchase and use ingredients to make some of the dairy products on our farm, we subscribe to a service (Food Safety News) that disseminates every US food recall, including salmonella in pet food, norovirus in Korean raw oysters, or botulism in a Michigan-based grocery chain—all real stories, all with potentially hazardous effects. Unless you subscribe to such a service, you’ll only see the “big” recalls that make the nightly news—for example, listeria in Blue Bell ice cream last year or Rancho’s 8.7 million pound beef recall in 2014. Indeed, if you are not paying attention, it would seem that recalls only happen to really big food corporations. The truth is, not a day goes by without a recall of some sort happening somewhere in our country.
It is important to note that recalls and foodborne illnesses are not in any way solely attributable to large-scale food producers. Quite the contrary—a small, organic vegetable farmer selling direct to consumers via farmer’s markets is quite capable of sickening his customers if he washes his lettuce mix in spring water containing high levels of coliform. The nice lady that quietly sells raw goat milk without a permit is putting every one of her friends at risk of ingesting Listeria monocytogenes, a highly pathogenic bacterium that can cause miscarriage in pregnant women. Food safety is something all producers—large and small—cannot ignore.
My husband and I have learned quite a bit about food safety over the years, having built our own state-inspected cheese plant, followed by a 5-A poultry slaughterhouse. State inspectors visit our farm at least once every month (sometimes announced, other times unannounced) and federal inspectors can come at any time. I’ll admit, in the beginning it was intimidating and downright nerve-wracking…and still can be. At least a few of my grey hairs are the result of the inspection process! But as intrusive as the process may sound, I assure you, this oversight has helped us to become better at what we do. It doesn’t hurt that we’ve had good working relationships with all of our inspectors—they’ve all been firm, but fair.
What are the inspectors looking at, you may ask? Every time they come, inspectors are looking at three elements of our business: Facilities, processes, and product. Facilities refers to everything physical in the plant, including floors (are they smooth and clean or pock-marked and in need of repair? is there proper drainage?), walls (is paint peeling?), windows (are they clean?), lighting (is it adequate for a safe work environment?), equipment (is it made of a food-grade material that can be cleaned properly? in good working condition or in need of repair?), and water (is the source free of harmful bacteria and nitrates?).
Our processes are thoroughly reviewed—a relatively easy task if we are in the middle of production—but significantly more difficult if the inspection occurs during down time. As a state-inspected facility, we are required to keep processing records. In the cheese plant, we keep all the chart records from the pasteurization process, results from antibiotic residue tests, and batch information. In the poultry slaughterhouse, we keep track of batches processed by number, date, and random temperature tests. And despite the fact that my husband and I are the sole employees, we must document our Standard Operating Procedures and have them ready for any state or federal inspector to review.
Finally, our dairy products are tested for a long list of bacteria, including listeria, coliform and e. coli, proper pasteurization, and compliance with federal codes, depending on the type of cheese. If something has gone wrong either with the facilities or the processes, the proof will be in the pudding, or in this case, the cheese.
As purveyors of local food, my husband and I have benefitted greatly from the overall “local food movement,” one that has emphasized small and sometimes artisan producers. In turn, this movement has gotten a tremendous boost from the seeming rise in large-scale food recalls I spoke about earlier. Food recalls are flat-out scary and the fear they generate has driven at least a portion of the population to seek out small, local alternatives. Of course, this is great for us and other small, local farmers. But are “small” and “local” any guarantee that your food will be safer to consume? Of course not. And when I hear of a local producer cutting corners (which sometimes they do) or of someone unashamedly and deliberately defying state laws regulating raw milk, for example, I shudder to think of the consequences. Not only could someone get very sick or even die, such blatant disregard for food safety could have deleterious effects on the overall local food movement.
Of course, I don’t mean to scare you. In fact, the amazing truth is our food supply is safer than it has ever been, due in no small part to oversight and regulation by state and federal government. That’s not to say this oversight is perfect in any way. New York State Agriculture & Markets agencies seem to be perpetually understaffed and underfunded. But champions of local food that romanticize a time before these regulations and dismiss their importance are not doing any favors to consumers or the local food movement. But this is once again where buying local, from area farmers, is the ultimate trump card: We can have this conversation in person.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Inspectors for Jones Family Farm do not live within the Mohawk Valley Living distribution area, lest anyone suspect Suzie is attempting to win them over. I’m not kissing up, I swear!