The Southeast could be a locavore’s dream. As the region’s population has grown, the cities have become affluent hubs, increasing demand for direct-farm sales and farmers markets. The climate is mild, large swaths of the region boast fertile soil and the living is comparatively cheap, so scores of small farmers have responded to the local foods movement by raising everything from organic vegetables to grass-fed cattle and free-range chickens.

Some of these small farmers have agreed to join researchers from Auburn University and nearby Tuskegee University to test a central tenet of the local foods movement. Are foods produced close to home by small, independent producers inherently more safe than—or at least as safe as—foods produced by large companies?

The farmers are cooperating with a team led by Christy Bratcher, Ph.D., a meat scientist at Auburn University in Alabama. The 5-year multidisciplinary project, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, includes scientists from a variety of disciplines who work closely with producers, regional Extension specialists, industry groups, government agencies and elected officials.

“Much emphasis has been placed on training those who handle our food supply,” Bratcher says. “Awareness must now be increased at the niche market level, too. Consumers can’t always rely on inspections and regulations to ensure the safety of products coming from local and regional producers and processors, so educating farmers is essential.”

Research Focus
The local foods movement promises to bring much-needed income into rural areas plagued by poverty and food insecurity. In fact, Bratcher says, encouraging the growth of local and regional food producers and processors will help revitalize rural economies. For that reason, the question of whether the farmers’ products are really as safe as the public seems to believe is more than academic. For small farmers to be competitive, their products must be safe.

“Anecdotal evidence suggests that consumers seek ‘local’ beef products during food safety scares, yet to date, there is no scientific evidence finding that these products are safer, and some food science experts believe that they may be less safe because of lack of knowledge of food safety production practices,” Bratcher says.

Small farmers selling directly to consumers, farmers markets and small niche producers and processors may not have adopted the necessary food safety measures followed by larger operators, Bratcher notes. That could spell disaster for them if their products are involved in an outbreak of foodborne illness.

Although there might be a kind of assurance that comes from shaking hands with a producer at a local farmers market or driving by the fields where your food comes from, the fact that local farmers aren’t anonymous poses a risk. When an outbreak of foodborne illness occurs, it is easier to identify the source—and easier to sue a small-scale, local producer. Since these businesses are usually small and operating on a tight budget, a lawsuit could spell the demise of their operations.

Research Goals
The goals of the project include identifying small beef farmers’ gaps in knowledge about food safety and in their actual practices, developing best practices and creating training programs and a voluntary certification process.

“Producers, processors and retailers can benefit from the research because they will be able to supply a safer food product, and they will benefit from the training and certification because they can use that in advertising to help differentiate themselves in the marketplace,” Bratcher says.

She notes that regulation and inspection of food products are inconsistent, and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) allows exemptions for tens of thousands of small farmers (although they still must comply with state and local health and sanitation requirements).

The exemptions reflect the belief that products from local farms are safer. In a statement released by his office after he introduced the exemption amendment, Montana Democrat Senator Jon Tester argued that dangerous foodborne outbreaks don’t start with family agriculture—but a look at news headlines shows that is not necessarily true. Recent recalls of raw organic milk, organic eggs and organic poultry—all from small producers—show consumer expectations are not being met.

Bratcher says that small farms exempted from FSMA regulations are still allowed to sell almost half of what they produce to large distributors, and many supermarket chains and other large retailers such as Walmart require suppliers to have detailed food safety plans in place. Bratcher sees identifying gaps in food safety practices, establishing best practices and providing training as a good way to promote the economic viability of small farmers because access to such markets is important.

To understand how much small producers really understand about food safety, Bratcher’s team is starting with case studies. To create the case studies, farmers are being interviewed in depth about their daily practices, especially those dealing with productivity, food safety, sustainability, traceability, bio-security and handling. Interviews are being followed by a full day of on-site observation to identify practices about which a farmer might be unaware.

The team also will take an objective look at potential microbial contamination and cross-contamination routes on farms during production and processing and all the way through the supply chain. Water runoff and soil and manure samples are being analyzed on various-size cattle farms.

In addition, four small processing facilities and one USDA- or state-certified slaughter plant are being sampled. Once meat reaches the grocery store, the team will purchase and sample packages of ground beef from various-size producers, with the total counts of coliforms and Escherichia coli enumerated.

Because the cost of mandatory food safety plans for small producers has been such an issue, team members are also conducting an economic analysis of the impact of implementing the voluntary best practice recommendations that come out of the research.

Perceptions of Risk
The project will also delineate consumer perceptions about local foods. Since consumers’ perceptions about local foods are the reason for the growth of the local foods movement, consumer misperceptions will be identified. This will help producers and vendors use true and accurate information in marketing their products, Bratcher says.

To get this information, a statistically representative sample of Alabama, Florida and Georgia residents is being queried on their beliefs about local, regional and sustainable agrifood systems as well as about food preferences specific to their culture. Both patrons and vendors at farmers markets are being surveyed and observed to assess their awareness of food safety risks and preventive practices.

What Can We Learn?
This research will create a knowledge base for those in the smaller, more locally oriented segment of the food system, Bratcher says. Team members will use this knowledge to create training courses and a certification program to make graduates more competitive. She notes that programs such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, Safe Quality Foods, third-party audits, ServSafe and Food Defense have resulted in tremendous improvements in the U.S. food supply, but similar programs have not been developed specifically for smaller direct farm-sales, farmers markets and small niche markets.

Programs do exist to serve as models, she notes. For example, the Beef Quality Assurance program, initiated in 1982, was widely adopted in a relatively short time. The program was designed for beef producers to address industry and government concerns about prohibited pharmaceutical residues in beef, and the guidelines actually exceed USDA’s and U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s food safety requirements.

Researchers involved in the project include scientists from Alabama Water Watch, a rural sociologist, animal and poultry scientists, an Extension specialist, an assessment specialist and a business professor who specializes in supply chain management. The team also includes two researchers from nearby Tuskegee University.  

Jacqueline Kochak is the communications specialist for the Auburn University Food Systems Institute, established to bring together researchers from different disciplines with an interest in food systems research.