As local food grows, so do safety standards

  • Hannaford has put an increasingly large focus on local products, and as a result, has come up with food safety standards for local farmers. ELODIE REED /Monitor staff

  • A “your local farmer” sign designates for Hannaford customers local produce at the Fort Eddy Road store in Concord.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Hannaford Supermarket has put an increasingly large focus on local products, and as a result, has come up with food safety standards for local farmers. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Hannaford Supermarket has put an increasingly large focus on local products, and as a result, has come up with food safety standards for local farmers. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Sweet corn grows in a Loudon field recently. Farmer Howard Pearl grows vegetables that he sells to New Hampshire grocery stores, and as a result, has to comply with stricter food safety standards.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Howard Pearl poses for a portrait in one of his cornfields Wednesday. Pearl, who farms in Loudon, is one of an increasing number of local food producers dealing with greater food safety regulations.  ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

  • Howard Pearl points out that he and his family eat the food they grow, which gives customers peace of mind about food safety.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Howard Pearl checks on the ripeness of an ear of sweet corn.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Zucchini sit packed and refrigerated in a trailer at Pearl and Sons Farm in Loudon.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Howard Pearl has been growing and selling vegetables for 25 years on his Loudon farm. ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/18/2016 11:56:30 PM

Entering the automatic sliding doors and passing by the displays of produce, bread, pasta sauce, salsa and meat, small signs reading “your local farmer” and “close to home” remind Hannaford customers of what they increasingly want – to know where their food actually comes from.

Grocery stores, as well as the food producers themselves, are learning what people hunger for. More farms have popped up in New Hampshire over the last three decades: The United States Census of Agriculture shows more than 1,600 farms were added to the state between 1982 and 2012.

Small farms are more popular, too, rising from 9 to 22 percent over the same time period. Of the 17 USDA-inspected meat and egg processing facilities in New Hampshire, 11 opened over the past five years.

Food safety is also a growing consideration. USDA meat and egg processing plants must have hazard control plans after a large E. coli outbreak in the 1990s, and a voluntary safety audit program is now offered to produce farmers across the country.

A 2011 federal law modernizing food safety is in the beginning stages of implementation, too.

New Hampshire is trying to balance both needs with efforts like its homestead food law, which allows people to produce and sell less than $20,000 worth of food that doesn’t need refrigeration from their homes and at farmers markets and retail stores without a license. With a license, people can sell $20,000 or more in products to restaurants, online and to other food distributors.

At this point, though, food industry players find themselves in a pickle. While customers want to support local businesses and eat food grown or processed right down their street, safety inspectors, distributors and producers face more responsibility and regulation.

Focus on safety

Loudon farmer Howard Pearl and his family have been growing food at Pearl & Sons Farm since the late 1800s. Pearl said his sweet corn, squash and other produce has been sold in New Hampshire grocery stores for 25 years.

Lately, Pearl said, distributors like Hannaford have implemented stricter standards. The company mandates that all produce growers have a “GAP” (Good Agricultural Practices) certification from the USDA, which audits safe harvesting, packing and general farm operations, and it also asks operators to have a food safety plan.

In New Hampshire, the state Department of Agriculture’s division of regulatory services oversees the GAP program. Pearl said he was allowed to ease into the certification, though after doing it for several years, he added: “We’re not doing anything different than we did before. Mostly paperwork.”

Hannaford spokesman Michael Norton said the store asks producers to be GAP certified not because they’re not trustworthy, but because it helps prepare small-operation farmers for bigger business.

“As you scale, it’s going to be good to have a process to remind you what you already know,” Norton said.

To help out with this extra burden, Norton said Hannaford sometimes awards microgrants for extra training or planning. The University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension offers help in training food workers, too, as more small operators come online.

Food’s future

New Hampshire food players are getting ready for more local producers as well as more food safety regulations. The Food Safety Modernization Act, which is beginning to be finalized, will be the first formal set of regulations for vegetable and fruit growers.

While there is a widely held concern about the new law’s effect on small-scale producers in New Hampshire, one immediate benefit is that it has brought New Hampshire’s different food safety players together.

“It’s been a trigger for us to work with our partners at the Department of Agriculture and at the UNH Cooperative Extension,” said Colleen Smith, the food protection administrator at the state Department of Health and Human Services.

She added that her division is in charge of overseeing the safety of processed foods as well as dairy, food establishments and other sectors, and they are struggling to regularly inspect places like farmers markets.

More and more, HHS has turned to its food safety partners to get the word out. This includes customers, who may not know about washing, storing or preparing their food safely.

“We definitely are working on outreach and education,” Smith said.

Keeping track

What New Hampshire has the most trouble doing with food safety, Smith said, is really knowing how many food-borne illness or sanitation incidents there are.

“For every one case that’s reported, there’s six others out there undetected,” she said. “We don’t really have a true picture of what’s happening.”

It is getting better, though. Smith said complaints are more common now due to the ease of submitting them on the internet, and the USDA recently issued a beef recall from the North Haverhill meat processing facility PT Farm after 14 people complained of illness this summer.

This is the first and only recall for PT Farm, whose slogan is “know where your meat comes from.” The owners did not return a call for comment, though they have implemented additional washing and training, according to a previous Monitor story.

John Dumais, CEO of the New Hampshire Grocers Association, said local producers aren’t more likely than others to have food safety issues. And with the labeling required by the USDA and GAP certifications, any food safety issues are now easier to pinpoint.

“They’re getting more sophisticated with the information – the traceability,” he said.

“Transparency,” Dumais added, “is more important than ever.”

For Pearl, the Loudon farmer, helping customers connect to the process their food goes through – and knowing that it’s safe – is what selling local is all about. It’s giving customers the corn his workers mechanically harvest, hand sort, bag and store on pallets in a refrigerated cooler. Pearl then delivers that corn by truck from store to store, less than 24 hours after it was picked.

“We certainly eat that food ourselves,” Pearl said. “That goes a long way in giving people peace of mind, thinking their food is safe.”

(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, ereed@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)




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