Sunday, July 14, 2002

Isle farmers resist
food safety guidelines

Without changing their practices,
growers may have a tough time
selling to large buyers

By Lyn Danninger

Hawaii's farmers have been slow to embrace voluntary food safety guidelines now being adopted by a growing number of produce purchasers, such as supermarkets and wholesalers.

A new poster shows farmers at a glance the basic procedures to keep their crops free from contaminants. Click image for ordering information.

So far, only a handful of local farmers have undergone an "agricultural audit" and been certified for what is called "good agricultural practices."

After a spate of lawsuits on the mainland related to food contamination in recent years, large scale buyers of produce want to make sure the food they sell to their customers is free of contaminants. Increasingly, more and more are now trying to direct their business only to growers whose farms have been certified.

If Hawaii farmers don't adopt the practices called for under the guidelines, they will have an increasingly difficult time selling their produce, said Jim Hollyer, specialist at University of Hawaii's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

To help promote the good agricultural practices, or GAP, program further, CTAHR got together with the state Agriculture Department and the Hawaii Farm Bureau to come up with a poster that is being distributed to Hawaii farmers.

The farm audits, which can be conducted by the Department of Agriculture or an approved third party consulting and testing firm, cover such things as use of chemicals, water tests, farm hygiene and worker safety. The poster illustrates and describes what is required, said Hollyer.

Food safety at the farm level is already a big issue on the mainland, particularly in California, said Hollyer. Recently Hollyer led a group of local farmers on a 5-day information-seeking trip to California farming areas to see how the food safety programs are working.

Local banana farmer Richard Ha, who has already been certified, went along on the trip. Ha sees getting the certification as a benefit to farmers, both organizationally and for marketing purposes.

"I think of it as an aid to management and for us we like to be ahead of the curve," he said.

But anticipations about costs and paperwork, as well as simple fear of the unknown, keep many Hawaii farmers from joining the program, said Hollyer. The poster might mitigate the last factor, at the least.

The state Department of Agriculture has already trained and certified two auditors and would like to train several others. But with few farmers volunteering their farms for what is called a "shadow audit" -- to train would-be inspectors and get an idea of what needs to be done -- it's been difficult to expand the program, said Sam Camp, commodities branch manager with the Quality Assurance Division of the Department of Agriculture.

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food And Drug Administration are taking more interest in issues of food safety.

In 1998, the FDA produced its own guidelines and the USDA has its own version of the GAP program, which is already in use in some states, Camp said.

Moreover, with safety being on everyone's minds, Camp said the USDA is talking of developing it's own biosecurity certification program separate from the GAP program.

There are more than 2,100 produce farms in Hawaii. As the market marches on, farmers will have to be with it or be ahead of it in order to survive, Hollyer said.

Audits can cost anywhere from $150 to $1,500. But once the practices have been put in place, Hollyer believes farms can benefit.

Much of the initiative for a food safety standardized system began in the private sector. A voluntary food safety guideline check list for fresh produce from the International Fresh Cut Produce Association and the Western Growers Association was in existence in 1997, prior to FDA interest in the issue, according to Hollyer.

By 1999, Safeway supermarket chain, a leader in the movement, sent out a letter advising its produce suppliers that the company would eventually move toward requiring all produce it buys to be certified.

Hollyer said the FDA guidelines came about partly in response to growing consumer concerns over several highly-publicized food contamination incidents.

Craig Bowden owns Davis Fresh Technology, a California-based international produce consulting firm that provides technical expertise on a variety of farm-related issues and also conducts food safety audits. Food safety issues are about 30 percent of the company's business and it's growing, he said.

Bowden, who comes originally from Hawaii and has worked with local farmers, believes it is in everyone's best interest to promote produce safety.

"There are things that can occur in production and distribution that can be mitigated to a great extent by prevention," he said.

Like Ha, he believes it can also make farmers more efficient.

"It helps you manage your process and when you manage that it helps you to understand what you are doing and also improve it," he said.

Bowden confirms more and more produce buyers are requiring certification, especially for commodities -- such as lettuce, cabbage, cantaloupe and berries -- that are more prone to contamination.

While produce buyers are saying little publicly on the issue, the pressure is not going to go away, he said.

Bowden believes eventually it will change from a quiet insistence to a formal requirement.

After a spate of lawsuits related to food contamination in recent years, large scale buyers of produce want to make sure the produce they sell to their customers is free of contaminants. Increasingly, they are trying to direct their business only to growers whose farms have been certified, he said.

For example, on Safeway's Internet site for its suppliers, the company has already advised both produce growers and shippers that it will begin to require some of the agricultural commodities it purchases to meet its certification standards.

"The program will focus initially on produce which has been implicated in food-borne illness outbreaks by the Center for Disease Control, or FDA or which has otherwise been identified as a high risk for potential contamination," the site says.

While food safety audits are still considered voluntary in most instances, Hollyer, Bowden and others said its only a matter of time before Hawaii's farmers find themselves compelled to meet new standards.

They hope the poster will encourage more Hawaii farmers to get certified.

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