Vermont Produce Farms Adjust To New Federal Food Safety Rules

Jan 31, 2018

Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act back in 2011 to cut down on foodborne illnesses in the produce industry, and the law just went into effect on Vermont's larger farms on Jan. 26.

Pete Johnson owns Pete's Greens in Craftsbury, which is one of the largest vegetable farms in the state, and it is one of about 15 farms that has to come into compliance during the first year.

Compared to meat and dairy, the produce industry has been largely unregulated up until now. And so, Johnson says, the new federal rules will have an impact on how food is grown in Vermont.

"We've had zero actual regulation related to food safety until this month, which is pretty amazing when you think about it," Johnson says.

Vegetable farming has been a growing part of the Vermont economy, as the locavore movement becomes commonplace and consumers demand more and more locally sourced food.

Between 1997 and 2012, the number of vegetable farms in Vermont more than doubled and sales over that same period grew from about $6.5 million to more than $21 million.

Johnson sells his produce as far away as New York City, and he's seen the industry grow up over the past few decades.

He's already doing a lot of the best practices covered in the new law, and he says if Vermont wants to grow more food, and ship it out of state, it makes sense to improve food safety standards.

Pete Johnson, left, picks through carrots at Pete's Greens, the vegetable farm he owns in Craftsbury.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

"I started doing this 20 years ago, and I got zero guidance on how to wash salad greens, pack them and sell them," Johnson says. "I learned from other farmers. I didn't have anybody talk to me about food safety at all. I know plenty of people who are doing it in a muddy back hole for decades on their farms. ... Bringing this stuff up a little bit standard-wise is a very good thing, and having it affect smaller farms too is a good thing."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has called the Food Safety Modernization Act the most sweeping update to the nation's food safety program in more than 70 years. The new rules require a whole new level of record keeping and verification, and they address things like water quality, hygiene and temperature control in an attempt to cut down on the spread of pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria.

The law was written with the huge West Coast megafarms in mind, where thousands of pounds of produce are packed daily, and where foodborne disease can spread across the country because of how far food travels.

"I started doing this 20 years ago, and I got zero guidance on how to wash salad greens, pack them and sell them. ... Bringing this stuff up a little bit standard-wise is a very good thing, and having it affect smaller farms too is a good thing." — Pete Johnson, owner of Pete's Greens

But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had to set a cutoff at some dollar amount, and so any farm that takes in $500,000 or more is required to meet the new regulations this year.

Another 10 or so farms in Vermont, with sales of $250,000 and up, will come under the new federal rules in 2019.

According to Hans Estrin, produce safety coordinator with UVM Extension, most of the fruit and vegetable farms in the state — about 120 — are considered small farms, and they've got another three years to work up their hygiene and record-keeping programs.

Estrin has been visiting the larger and smaller farms throughout the state to help the farmers understand how the new law will affect their business.

Estrin says even though the smaller farms won't be held to the same standards right away, anyone who sells their produce to a co-op or a secondary market somewhere will be expected to prove that their food is safe.

"The markets, the buyers — the standard is they need some verification of these produce safety standards," Estrin says. "So these smaller farms can't just turn a blind eye and just go keep doing what they're doing."

The federal rules were written in Washington, D.C., but each state is figuring out how to interpret the rules and what the inspection process will look like.

"It's a learning curve both for the feds, the state and the farms. Everyone is learning together, and trying to figure out how to do this in a way that both reduces risk and increases the health and viability of our markets in Vermont." — Hans Estrin, UVM Extension

Estrin says UVM Extension and the Agency of Agriculture are working with farmers to come up with programs that fit Vermont's smaller, diversified farm economy.

"So it's an interesting process," Estrin says. "It's a learning curve both for the feds, the state and the farms. Everyone is learning together, and trying to figure out how to do this in a way that both reduces risk and increases the health and viability of our markets in Vermont."

Food safety inspections on Vermont's largest farms will begin next year, while the medium-sized farms have until 2020 before state inspectors visit.