States Have Important Role in Building Food-Safety Partnerships

This is the sixth in a series of blogs by Deputy FDA Commissioner Michael Taylor on his multi-state tour to see agricultural practices first-hand and to discuss the produce-safety standards that FDA is proposing. 

By: Michael R. Taylor

 “Live Free or Die” has been New Hampshire’s state motto since 1945, and almost seven decades later it still represents the fiercely independent spirit of the people who live here.

At Dartmouth College, Mike Taylor talks at a listening session on FDA’s proposed food-safety rules.

Washington, D.C., is a company town in many ways and when you live and work there, it’s easy not to see how the federal government is perceived in communities where people are making their living from the land. There’s a wariness of what is seen as federal encroachment in matters that people believe should be handled at the local level.

We have known for some time how important the state role will be in implementing the provisions of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, and that was very apparent during our conversations in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Aug. 20. Everyone agrees that keeping the food supply safe is paramount, but accomplishing that — especially in the context of smaller scale, local food systems like we find in New England — will require teamwork that crosses federal and state boundaries.

We were fortunate to be joined in this visit to New Hampshire by Lorraine Merrill, commissioner of New Hampshire’s Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food, and Chuck Ross, secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Foods and Markets.

Lorraine and Chuck joined us in a listening session at Dartmouth College, where the concerns about federal involvement really jumped out. Locally oriented food communities are part of the social fabric and they want to stay that way. For the farmers and many consumers here, it’s all about looking a person in the eye and having confidence in the people you’re working with. Many participants in the listening session had studied the proposed rules carefully and asked important questions about how they would apply to highly-diversified local food systems. They challenged the rules’ practical and economic feasibility as proposed.

We also heard two compelling consumer voices about the importance of establishing modern standards to prevent foodborne illness: Lauren Bush, who suffered permanent damage to her health from spinach contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, and Gabrielle Meunier, whose son Christopher was hospitalized for seven days after eating Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter.

The challenge we must meet is to create food safety rules that reduce the risk of such terrible incidents, while being workable across the great diversity of American agriculture.

After the listening session, we visited the Co-Op Food Store in Lebanon. Founded in 1936 by Dartmouth College professors and their spouses, the Co-Op now boasts multiple stores and 30,000 members. There is a huge focus on local sources, with farmers’ photos on the walls. Many Co-Op employees have been trained in retail food safety, so the Co-Op clearly has a commitment to keeping their members safe. But it also identifies strongly with the farmers and wants to see them flourish. These go beyond business relationships; they are true partnerships.

At the Edgewater Farm in Plainfield, N.H., Mike Taylor, center, listens to Chuck Ross, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Foods and Markets. At right is farmer Pooh Sprague.

From there we went to the Edgewater Farm in Plainfield. Owners Pooh and Anne Sprague have the kind of diverse operation that you see a lot here. In addition to the family farm, there’s a very nice farm store in which the Spragues sell not only produce grown on their farm but flowers from their fabulous gardens. And while we were talking to Pooh, Anne was packing food for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), in which subscribers share in the harvest.

Farmers often have complex business models in which they are producing food, selling it directly to consumers, and sometimes selling foods from other farms in their stores. They are legitimately concerned about how the proposed food safety rules will affect the various facets of their operations.

However, there are a lot of misconceptions about these proposals. For example, some farmers feel that the proposed rule would require them to put up fences to keep wildlife out of their fields. Fencing an entire farm would be a big expense and we heard anxiety about that. But fencing is not a requirement under the proposed Produce Safety Rule. Rather, they would have to monitor their fields for animal intrusion and separate out produce that is reasonably likely to have been contaminated.

It’s clear we’ve got a huge job ahead in communicating the nuts and bolts of the proposed food safety regulations, as well as implementing the rules that finally emerge. And that’s where the states will be so important.

It’s about working with people you know. State agriculture departments have food safety responsibilities, but they are also there to support the agricultural system. State agriculture and health officials are on the front line; they have relationships with growers and food producers. Their role includes enforcement, but also education and assistance. The food safety law mandates a federal-state partnership, but even if it didn’t, this just makes sense.

Dealing with people they know at the state level may allay some of the fears that growers and local food retailers have about new federal standards. We will work with Lorraine Merrill, Chuck Ross and other partners to figure out how various institutions at the local, state and federal levels can best collaborate to help the produce community move forward in a way that is good for consumers and feasible for farmers.

Keep watching this space. I will be filing another FDA Voice blog this week to keep you up to date on what I learn in my travels to Vermont and Massachusetts. 

Michael R. Taylor is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine

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