Credit: Rose Hoban

A meeting in Raleigh last week hosted by agriculture commissioner Steve Troxler had one overriding message for farmers – get ready for changes.

By Rose Hoban

North Carolinians ate about 10 billion meals in 2011, and, relatively speaking, few of those meals caused any health problems. But still, many thousands of people in the state did become sick from a food-borne illness, and some died.

NC Agricultural Commissioner Steve Troxler greets farmers and food processors at last week's Food Safety Forum in Raleigh. Photo by Rose Hoban.
NC Agricultural Commissioner Steve Troxler greets farmers and food processors at last week’s Food Safety Forum in Raleigh. Photo by Rose Hoban. Credit: Rose Hoban
NC Agricultural Commissioner Steve Troxler greets farmers and food processors at last week’s Food Safety Forum in Raleigh. Photo by Rose Hoban. Credit: Rose Hoban

That’s part of the reason North Carolina Agricultural Commissioner Steve Troxler gathered hundreds of farmers, food processors and food-industry managers at the state fairgrounds in Raleigh last Tuesday for an annual food-safety forum.

And to the people in the room, the message was clear – regulation of some kind is coming, so get ready.

“What I know is that food safety is an agricultural issue – not only from a health standpoint, but also when we have a recall the public’s antennas go up, it damages markets and we lose the ability to sell some of these products,” said Troxler, referring to a recent North Carolina cantaloupe recall that has hurt sellers in the state.

“There’s not a person in agriculture, or agribusiness, that wants to put a product out there that’s going to harm a human being; that’s not how we do business as humans,” Troxler said, calling food safety a farmer’s “moral obligation.”

The other reason Troxler held the forum was to inform farmers and food processors about new federal rules coming as a result of the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law by President Obama in January 2011. Many in the room had lots of questions about how the new rules are going to affect the way they raise and distribute food.

In effect, Troxler said, fresh fruits and vegetables have never been regulated before, and farmers are going to have to adjust.

What adjustments are coming

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is still in the process of making rules as part of the regulatory process set in motion by the FSMA. The entire rulemaking and implementation process could take years.

The rulemaking process is already the subject of litigation by environmental advocates who allege the federal government is foot-dragging on the issue.

USDA official Leanne Skelton told attendees of last week’s Raleigh forum that it could take as many as seven or eight years for some of them to come under the new rules; large facilities and distributers will be affected first, the smallest farms last.

Hunter Gibbs farms 125 acres of red and yellow potatoes near Little Washington. He is also part of a group of 22 farmers who’ve joined together to distribute their produce. Gibbs said he’s wondering about the new rules from both a farming and a distribution standpoint.

“I think what you hear [from farmers] is that unknown of how is it going to be regulated,” Gibbs said. ”‘What are they going to make us do? Does it make sense in our production? Are they going to listen to us?’”

Pig behind fence image
Photo courtesy Lisa Jarvis, Wikimedia Creative Commons Credit: Lisa Jarvis, Wikimedia Creative Commons

Gibbs said many farmers are wondering about the paperwork requirements included in the law – paperwork that’s intended to make it easier to track down tainted fruits and vegetables in the case of an outbreak of food-borne disease.

“The data-entry aspect of it is going to be real hard to get [farmers] to do. Do you want to hire someone to do it? … That’s another investment and the cost that’s associated with it,” said Gibbs, who pointed out that farmers will comply, but that many are already stressed by all the other kinds of work required in farming.

“The small guy, the farmer who wears the accounting hat, then he wears the carpentry hat, the lawyer hat, the food-safety hat, the growing hat. … Now he’s going to have to be doing it all,” Gibbs said. “That’s a lot.”

Farm to fork

North Carolina had about 4,000 cases of food-borne illnesses reported to the Division of Public Health last year, including Salmonella, Shigella and Campylobacter.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the actual number is much higher, with one of every six Americans experiencing a food-borne illness annually. At that rate, North Carolina would experience more than a million cases every year.

Electron microscope photograph of Listeria monocytogenes bacterium in tissue. Image courtesy of the CDC, Public Health Image Library, Dr. Balasubr Swaminathan; Peggy Hayes Credit: CDC, Public Health Image Library, Dr. Balasubr Swaminathan; Peggy Hayes

Data also show, however, that annual rates for many kinds of food-borne illnesses, such as Listeria and Campylobacter, have declined dramatically over the past two decades. Salmonella rates ticked up slightly in 2010, according to the CDC.

“We’ve become really risk averse as a society,” said Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian for the National Pork Producers Council and a forum presenter. “We do know that for a lot of consumers, price and food safety are the drivers behind their decision making.”

Wagstrom also pointed out that many consumers don’t cook meat to temperatures that will adequately kill bacteria and parasites.

Others mentioned that many consumers eat fruits and vegetables without washing or cooking them.

“Fresh, natural, full of life, unprocessed … that’s what we all tout as far as fresh produce; that’s why people consume it,” said presenter Thomas Mack, vice president of technical services for Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc. “Unfortunately, those same characteristics are what cause our biggest problems. This is a natural, unprocessed product.”

Several presenters talked about the responsibility of consumers to be aware of food safety and prepare food adequately. But also they acknowledged that food producers often get the blame when people get sick.

“Produce is still grown outside under God’s broad skies and fields that are not fully controllable,” Mack continued. “We don’t have air curtains, we don’t have doors and we don’t have screens on all the windows. Birds fly over [and] the wind blows and carries dirt or other contaminants.”

“We’re growing in a situation where we try to exercise as much control as possible … but we don’t have total control over where we’re growing it.”

Mack talked about being involved in the spinach recall of 2006, where four people died of E. coli exposure and hundreds more suffered kidney damage as a result.

“It shut down an entire industry; economics were in excess of $100 million,” said Mack, who reiterated Troxler’s point about food safety being a moral obligation. “I hope you never have to go through a serious food-safety issue.”

Recall rebound

Many of the people at the forum expressed heightened awareness of how damaging a recall can be.

Bacteria detected on the skins of cantaloupes from a North Carolina farm prompted a recall by the FDA this summer. Photo courtesy of USDA, Scott Bauer.

Last month, North Carolina-based Burch Farms was forced to recall its entire year’s crop – close to 189,000 fruits – from store shelves when some of the company’s cantaloupes and honeydew melons were found to be contaminated with Listeria, a bacteria that can cause serious, sometimes fatal, infections in children and the elderly or people with compromised immune systems.

The bacteria was identified by Food and Drug Administration inspectors who tested the melon skins and found unsanitary conditions at a company facility. As far as the FDA knows, no one has gotten sick from the contamination.

Nonetheless, Burch Farms’ reputation has suffered.

“Certainly, no one wants to get anyone sick … and then there’s the repercussions,” said Gibbs. “If they get someone sick … that could be the farm.”

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...