Safety of Local Food
Is buying from your local farm stand or farmers market safe?
Is Local Food Safer?
After a recent post about local food, a reader asked if local food was safer than supermarket food. They asked:
“We might also want to buy more locally and ideally from a farmer or a market where we know the food's origin- isn't that so?”
Many of the articles supporting purchasing local food list food safety as a reason to buy local food. They suggest the shorter supply chain reduces the chance of bacteria getting on food.
Or does it?
We cannot make any assumptions about the safety of food from any source. When we are buying at a supermarket or through a distributor, we assume they will check the practices of their suppliers to ensure that the food is free from hazards. When we buy directly from a farm, if we don’t ask questions about their farming and handling practices, we do not know about their safety practices.
One advantage of a local food system is that it is small. Typically, most of the food stays within a little geographical area with fewer consumers than, say, lettuce grown in Salinas Valley CA, which is distributed throughout the country. If there is a hazard present in local food, such as E. coli on leafy greens fewer people will be affected.
What to look for
When you buy from a farm, either a farm stand or at a farmers market, find out what food safety guidelines they follow. You can also watch what their food safety practices are while you are at their farm stand. For example, is there a place for hand washing and do they throw away any dropped produce?
As a consumer, whether you are buying fresh fruits and vegetables or processed foods, you must be wary of food safety issues around food. Fresh fruits and vegetables have the advantage that you take them home to wash and process them as you want to and they’ve been through very few supply chain steps by the time they get to you. In fact, probably one supply chain step if the farmer is selling their own harvest that they picked and packed.
What is Local Food?
In the US there is no legal definition of what local means. Several ways of defining local appear to be agreed upon:
Farmers selling directly to consumers at regional farmers’ markets, through Community Supported Agriculture schemes or directly to school food programs, is one definition of local food.
Otherwise the only federal definition for local food was in the Farm Bill given as anything less than 400 miles away.
This map shows 400 miles from my city. I don’t consider Ohio or North Carolina or Ontario as local. They are, of course, more local than Salinas Valley CA where much of the country’s Romaine lettuce comes from.
How do you define local food? Let me know in the comments.
Challenges with Buying Local Food
Other than a weekly farm box for 20 weeks and a couple of farm stands I have limited choice to buy local food. The supermarkets are mostly chains and mostly sell food that comes from all over the world.
I once looked at my weekly shopping and the only food that originated in America was the sweet potatoes. The potato chips came from Canada and, while the chocolate bars were made in Illinois, there is no way the chocolate originated from America.
In the US, we import a lot of raw ingredients from the global South and processed them here into the final product. Chocolate is one of the biggest culprits in that supply chain.
Reasons for Buying Local Food
There are other reasons to buy local, not just food safety. The main reason I have a weekly farm box is to support a local farm and to keep some of that income in my region. Also, the vegetables and fruit are so good.
Who is Cathy Davies?
I write about the intersection of food science and food systems with an emphasis on food safety, food justice and resilience. I am concerned that climate disasters and changing weather patterns are affecting our ability to eat healthy, nutritious food.
I run a food safety consultancy, Food Safety Mid Atlantic, supporting specialty food businesses with their food safety plans and programs. If you are interested in learning more about my consulting services, please schedule a free call.
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