Phil Danowsky, general manager of Local Harvest Supply in Coralville, Iowa, buys from more than 50 growers in Iowa and nearby states. While small farmers aren’t required to get certified in food safety practices, Danowsky said those who supply Local Harvest have been trained about proper procedure for washing, boxing and cooling the produce. (Photo by Kathleen Masterson/Harvest Public Media)
It seems like every year we face a handful of some serious food-borne illness outbreaks. The most recent was a deadly E. coli outbreak ultimately traced to sprouts grown in Germany. Because some media coverage mentioned that the sprouts were locally grown, it's sparked more debate about how safe local food is — or isn't.
"The USDA has what's called GAP standards, good agriculture practices" that large producers are required to follow, said Phil Danowsky, the general manager of Local Harvest Supply, a new branch of Midwest company Hawkeye Foodservice. "Small farmers right now are exempt from that."
But as local food becomes more and more popular, especially with interest from bigger buyers like schools, hospitals and grocery stores, many in the food business see the writing on the wall: Some day they'll likely have to follow some kind of food safety plan.
Current law says large farms have to follow certain standards about how to wash, chill and package their produce. The standards vary depending on the product, but the key idea is they identify critical points along the food chain where the risk of contamination is the highest — so called "hazard points."
The system works for large-scale farms, but it's just not set up to work for smaller, backyard type operations.
"The whole model, the whole system, is to inspect farms that grow one crop," said Danowsky. "They go out to California, and this big farm grows celery, that's all they grow. So they do their hazardous points and everything for this particular crop."
But that's not how local foods farmers operate.
"Well you come out here to Iowa and a farmer’s got 50 different crops or 30 different crops,” Danowsky said.
Farmers pay up to $1,500 for a GAP inspection — and the inspector has to come from out of state because there are none in Iowa.
“Plus they have hard time even inspecting because they produce so many different products," Danowsky said.
Danowsky said when he first started buying local food from smaller growers some just didn't understand the standards required to sell produce to larger buyers.
"We'd have to go pick it up ourselves and it would come in in a different kind of box, so we'd re-box it, and make sure it was clean, and sort it. We'd hand pick everything that goes out," he said.
They've come a long way in a just a year. Now in its second growing season, Local Harvest Supply has streamlined the process by teaching growers their standards. And, the company has taken its own food safety steps — like picking up the food from small farms in a refrigerated truck, and requiring that the food be packed into clean boxes from Local Harvest Supply. Danowsky works with over 50 farmers, and in the future he'd like to give them an opportunity to get GAP certified.
Some smaller farmers have gone ahead and done the GAP cert on their own. Scott and Julie Wilbur farm 22 acres in Boone, Iowa, and they did the training. Not only is it good education for them, but it makes them more marketable to places like the Hy-Vee grocery store chain.
But there will probably always be those farmers who just sell at farmers markets or within hyperlocal communities — and as long as people are buying, they'll be able to keep selling out of their pick-up trucks.