How produce safety rule impacts small farms

Blueberry pickers had come to glean the berries left over after harvest and donate them to hungry families in Salem, Ore.

Pat Zurbrugg, owner of Zurbrugg Blueberries, stuffed his hands in his pockets and shrugged as he watched the gleaners.

“I’m glad to donate my berries to people in need,” he said. “But there wasn’t always so much excess until I switched to U-pick.”

Zurbrugg changed to U-pick because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s new produce safety rule made it difficult for him to continue processing his berries.

“For a busy small farm like mine, it’s very expensive and time-consuming to follow the rule,” said Zurbrugg.

The produce safety rule, part of the FDA’s Food and Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), was created to prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness.

The rule gives the government more oversight over farms — inspecting irrigation water for dangerous bacteria, making sure workers wash their hands and protecting against animal droppings, for example.

Joy Waite-Cusic, food safety researcher at Oregon State University, said most farmers were already following safety practices, but FDA made the rule in response to outbreaks linked to fresh foods.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 48,0000 people in the U.S. — one in six — get sick from foodborne illnesses each year, and 3,000 die annually.

Much of that illness can be attributed to improper handling at the consumer and retail level, but some can be traced back to the farm. According to the National Institutes of Health, outbreaks linked to fresh produce were the leading cause of foodborne illness in the U.S. in 2016.

The rule, though intended to protect consumers, has made it harder for some farms to stay in business.

Oregon Blueberry Commission Administrator  Bryan Ostlund said the rule has both positive and negative sides. It’s positive, Ostlund said, because it improves safety education and practices. “We need farms to understand food safety better, and this rule helps with that,” he said.

But Ostlund said the rule costs farmers time and money. Farmers must keep records, train employees and get inspections. Although the FDA does not charge for standard inspections, some farms need to buy new equipment or hire staff for record-keeping.

“It’s a good rule in many ways, but no one wants more bureaucracy,” said Ostlund. “It’s a march forward, but also a fall back. How does a small-scale farm keep up administratively? How do farmers survive?”

According to Waite-Cusic of OSU, some farms are exempt — such as those with average produce sales of less than $25,000 annually. But for farms big enough to fall under the rule yet small enough that income is tight, the rule creates a burden.

“Those farms are in a financial pinch,” said Waite-Cusic. “They’re impacted the most. They typically run a very lean operation, and they may not be able to afford a record-keeper or food safety staffer. So some are going out of business.”

But not every farmer dislikes the rule.

Greg Bennett, owner of Northwest Onion Co. in Brooks, Ore. said the rule is worth the extra work.

“There’s more training and accountability,” he said. “We’re protecting consumers better. We’ve got more peace of mind that people won’t get sick. The rule protects us, too. If we get into a food recall, we have the documentation behind us to back up our story. But it’s more work. We have a lot more dividers in our notebooks now.”

Waite-Cusic said resources are available to help farms comply with the rule without hurting their businesses. Farmers can request free consultations — called on-farm readiness reviews — with Oregon Department of Agriculture and OSU Extension staff.

Waite-Cusic said resources are under-utilized, and grant money to support the consultations may run out in 2020.

“This is one of the only ways you’ll ever get your tax dollars back,” she said, and laughed. “I want to keep farms in business and keep people from getting sick — a win-win.”