This blog was originally posted on farmersguild.org and we were given permission to share on our website.
Co-Authors for this blog are Kali Feiereisel, Dave Runsten and Evan Wiig of Farmers Guild
Last week, the U.S. government issued a blanket “do not eat” warning for produce. As in the 2006 spinach outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a food safety alert: “U.S. consumers should not eat any romaine lettuce, and retailers and restaurants not serve or sell any, until we learn more about this outbreak.”
A week later, authorities narrowed the source to California’s Central Coast while major distributors in the leafy greens industry agreed to voluntarily label the harvest date and region in which their romaine lettuce was grown. But while the CDC has since lifted its warning for greens grown outside this region and even specified the exemption of greens grown hydroponically, scant mention has been made for the public (by authorities nor by the media) about small farms who grow and only sell locally, therefore faultless in the matter.
Usually the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wait to issue outbreak recalls until they have more information about the product, location of origin, and its path through the complex food supply system. Moreover, not every farm has a supply chain spanning the vast geography of this outbreak, involving 12 states plus Canada. So while romaine grown by small California farms selling directly to consumers (at venues such as farmers markets) could in no way be implicated, they nonetheless take the hit.
Small family farms often operate with thin profit margins. Despite their autonomy from the vast supply chain currently under investigation by the CDC, such hasty and overgeneralized food safety warnings can easily scare away customers, rendering entire crops unsellable and jeopardizing these small-scale farms.
“Luckily our own romaine season has passed,” says Sonya Perrotti of Coyote Family Farm, just outside Santa Rosa, CA. “But had this outbreak occurred any earlier, we’d have had to throw out a perfectly safe and healthy crop. A big blow to our business. I’ve seen customers pass over whatever the most recently contaminated crop is in the news, as if every romaine (or melon, or spinach) has suddenly become toxic, regardless of where it came from.”
Consumers should stay informed as this outbreak investigation develops and heed warnings. But they should also recognize the advantages of direct relationships with local growers–farmers who can more easily track and communicate where their products end up. Once again, this incident reminds us all that the responsibility of communicating these advantages to consumers (from quality taste to economic impact to food safety) once again falls on the shoulders of the small, family farmers themselves, together with advocates of healthy, local food systems.
We at CAFF & The Farmers Guild have been working with small produce farmers on food safety training and technical assistance for nearly a decade. In the last two years alone, our Food Safety Program has provided over 60 trainings and seven webinars to over 1,300 farmers on the importance of implementing good agricultural practices (GAPs) on all farms, regardless of size. It is essential that all produce farms implement and continuously improve their on-farm food safety best practices. There is no such thing as zero risk when it comes to on-farm food safety, but there are specific best practices (GAPs) all farmers can implement to reduce food safety risks.
Beyond that, the message is clear: know your farmers. Buy fresh, buy local.