By Cheryl Wixson
Many certified organic farmers and producers seek to increase sales and market penetration through value-added food production or sales to institutions, supermarket chains and food processors. Markets for local, organic food are strong and growing rapidly, but licensing requirements, food safety regulations and liability issues must be addressed before a farmer can market a product.
In Maine, licenses for value-added food production and processing are issued by the Department of Agriculture under standards known as the Food Code. The purpose of Maine’s Food Code is to “safeguard public health and to provide to consumers food that is safe, unadulterated, and honestly presented.” The current Maine Food code (State of Maine, 2001 Food Code) was issued by the FDA in 1999 and adopted by the state in 2001. Revisions from the 2009 and 2011 FDA Food Code are being considered by the DHHS and Department of Agriculture, with a year-end adoption goal.
To prepare and sell baked goods, jams, jellies and pickles, a home food-processing license is required. To manufacture and produce foods such as soups and cheeses that are not shelf stable and require temperature control to prevent rapid growth of pathogens, a commercial processing facility and license are necessary. If these products contain meat or meat-products or poultry and will NOT be sold directly to the consumer (i.e., they will be sold to a distributor), then the producer must prepare and file a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan and produce this product under USDA inspection. Examples include chicken potpies, lard and beef burritos.
To learn more, attend MOFGA’s Licensing the Home Food Processing Kitchen workshop on December 5, 2012.
In addition to the appropriate license, new food safety regulations must be considered. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are responsible for the safety of the U.S. food supply. The FDA, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, is responsible for the safety of about 80 percent of the food in the United States, including fresh and fresh-cut produce. The USDA, under the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), is charged with protecting meat, poultry and eggproducts.
On January 4, 2011, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law. The Act is aimed at helping the FDA prevent food safety problems by providing science-based minimum standards for safer production of fruits and vegetables that address soil amendments, worker health and hygiene, packaging, temperature controls, water and other issues.
Under the Tester-Hagan amendment, a farm is exempt from these regulations if its annual gross sales are less than $500,000 and more than 50 percent of the product is sold directly to “qualified end users” – consumers or restaurants in state or within a 275-mile radius of the farm.
However, to sell to institutions such as hospitals and schools, to large supermarket chains, or to other food processors, additional vendor requirements exist. They include a certain level of liability insurance, demonstration of knowledge of food safety, of how contaminants enter into the food stream, and often, a verified Farm Food Safety Plan.
Since 2008, MOFGA has been developing an educational farm food safety program to meet the needs of diversified organic farms. In 2009, the USDA Farmer’s Market Promotion Program awarded MOFGA a two-year grant to work with Maine General Hospital to increase the health care system’s purchases of food from growers in Kennebec and Somerset counties.
To continue this work, in 2012, as part of a collaboration with the Community Food Security Coalition, MOFGA received additional funding from the USDA Risk Management Agency to sponsor workshops in nine Maine locations. Last winter and spring, 188 growers and producers attended meetings that emphasized how farm food safety was integral to the National Organic Program. Parts of the organic farm plan were reviewed for relevance to farm food safety.
As part of the Food Safety Modernization Act, food facilities that are not exempt must develop and implement a written preventive control plan, provide for monitoring of performance of these controls, and specify corrective actions the facility will take when necessary. On July 4, 2012, the FDA issued the directive that these required plans would be known as HARPC, Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls, a management system similar to HACCP.
The educational work, curriculum and sample Farm Food Safety Plan that MOFGA has developed appears to be closely aligned with these new FDA FSMA requirements.
Russell Libby, MOFGA’s executive director, maintains that USDA’s food safety plan and inspection program known as GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) is not suitable or financially feasible for diversified organic farms. This new FDA directive may provide a science-based protocol for farm food safety plans for diversified farms, a verification program as an extension of the National Organic Program, and a lucrative wholesale market for organic farmers.
As an organic marketing consultant for MOFGA, I focus on developing new markets for certified organic farms. Once a farmer has attended a Basic Farm Food Safety workshop, the next step involves developing and implementing an On-Farm Food Safety Plan that allows the farmer to assess operations and practices and to document actions for managing food safety hazards.
With the exception of Maine General Hospital, the majority of wholesale markets still require GAP inspection. To develop relationships and new marketing opportunities with wholesalers such as Hannaford, Sodexo, institutions and other hospitals, MOFGA needs a critical mass of approximately 20 growers with Farm Food Safety Plans. The Risk Management Agency grant funding allows me to visit farms, provide technical assistance and help develop Farm Food Safety Plans that are an extension of organic farm plans.
The institutional food buyer sector represents a huge, untapped and lucrative market for MOFGA’s certified organic farmers. To capitalize on these exciting prospects, I encourage those interested to consider developing Farm Food Safety Plans and to contact me for technical assistance.
Cheryl Wixson, professional engineer, is MOFGA’s organic marketing consultant and food safety specialist. Contact her at Cheryl@mofga.org or 207-947-0892.