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Have you ever watched the news and heard of a spinach recall or wondered how a melon could hurt you?

This past weekend my family and I went out to a restaurant and after staring at raw meat on the main floor through most of our meal, I finally had to ask for a server to clear it before we reached the dessert course. So what are food safety precautions and is hand washing and sanitary food preparation technique enough? How much trust can Michiganders place in those who grow or raise our food (let alone prepare it) and what does this have to do with community development?

Food safety is an important piece of local food system development with not only health implications, but also economic consequences.

Making a purchase at a local farmers market is good for the vendor and typically good for the consumer. There is an implied trust and intangibles are exchanged such as sense of community and goodwill. However, there are not many food safety standards present other than Cottage Food laws. According to Cottage Food law, as long as food items are “low risk” – for example unprocessed fruits and vegetables, farmers may sell to whomever they wish, whether at market, farm stand or other. However, should a small producer want to go full-time and scale up, precautions and tracking procedures become significant and can actually inhibit business growth. Today, there are at least 339 farmers markets of all varieties in Michigan – imagine if one half of those vendors wanted to enter retail markets. While USDA has found that 5.4 jobs are created per farmers market, this is typically not enough to pay for additional farm management, safety plan implementation and record keeping.

Ultimately, food safety standards will continue to tighten in coming years. This can create a bottle neck for those wishing to access local, healthy foods at large volume. However, Michigan has made significant headway over the last several years to help farmers share risk and cost (positively affecting our health and our wallet) as one of six pilots across the country implementing GroupGAP (Good Agricultural Practices). Through the pilot findings of the MI GroupGAP study, researchers noted that on-farm and quality management system audit expenses can be shared amongst group participants, thereby reducing barriers to wholesale market entry for small farmers. As of the end of 2015, the USDA is currently working to unveil GroupGAP nationally in 2016, which will allow for more small farmers to scale up their sales.

How does increased food safety improve community well-being?

As customers have less time to seek out groceries, local food aggregation and distribution will become more important. Trust bonds will be replaced with food safety certification so that foods may be traced down to the date and row of harvest. Ultimately, this will help reduce the bottle neck for local food procurement and allow more farmers to enter the market, additionally improving local access for institutional sourcing. This supply chain development is the necessary foundation from which to get a locally grown apple to a child’s plate within the K-12 system or in a senior center’s cafeteria. However, it is not possible without supporting policy and decision making at the governmental level. Check back next month for federal and state actions adopted to help build local food infrastructure and access.

For more information on the impacts of food safety on local purchasing, please contact Farm to Institution specialist, Colleen Matts at matts@msu.edu. If you’re a farmer interested in becoming GroupGAP certified or an organization looking to buy MI GroupGAP certified products, please contact Cherry Capital GroupGAP coordinator, Phil Britton, at phil.britton@cherrycapitalfoods.com. For more information and to read the complete Food Forward MI blog see: http://cedamichigan.org/policy/food/

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mary-zumbrunnenAbout the author: Mary ZumBrunnen is the Director of Talent & New Market Initiatives at Prima Civitas, a statewide economic development non-profit catalyzing Michigan. She holds a BS in agriculture and natural resource communications from Michigan State University (MSU) and an MS in community, agriculture, recreation and resource studies, also from MSU. Currently she is pursuing a master of business administration. A small business owner and backyard farmer, Mary energetically works to facilitate sustainable development through citizen engagement. Connect with Mary on Twitter @Mary_ZumBrunnen and learn about other development projects onwww.primacivitas.org today.

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