We have been dismayed by the frequent news of frozen organic produce recalls at Costco over the past few months. For us, it started with some organic frozen berries from Costco that were recalled due to potential contamination of Hepatitis A.
In the news at the same time, Costco apparently really wanted to increase their organic product offerings. In particular, to start stocking organic fresh fruit and vegetables.
But it seems they were finding organic fresh produce hard to find (maybe hard to find at crazy cheap prices because organic farmers want to be paid a fair wage?). So they’re helping to fund farmers to grow organic produce for them.
As an organic farmer and organic eater, I’m happy to see more acreage (in any part of the world) move to organic.
But the Hepatitis A frozen berries really got to me.
Yes, these berries were organic and that’s something I care about. But I don’t know anyone who thinks it’s ok to contract Hepatitis A (or any other illness) while consuming their morning smoothie. I know I don’t. And the contamination isn’t just a problem with that one company whose label is on the package. Or the company (Costco) who is selling the product.
The problem is with our entire food system. We buy food, that precious thing that makes up our physical bodies, from people we don’t know, processing systems we don’t know, production practices we don’t know, distribution chains we don’t know.
The current policies and practices that govern our food safety rules allow recalls to happen. They set it up so that it’s known which “lots” may be contaminated. What stores got those lots. Even, which customers bought those lots (in particular at membership-based stores like Costco but also with credit card info).
But, for me, I’d rather know where and who my food came from.
I’d like to know who the person was who may have infected those berries with Hepatitis A and make sure they’re ok. Make sure they were able to access treatment, make sure they were able to take some time off to recover and their family would still be able to eat and pay the bills during that time.
For a long time, farmers have been told “bigger is better” and “get big or get out.”
This is one of those cases that show the benefits of small.
On our farm, there are 2 people who grow the produce. 2 people who wash the produce. 2 people who package the produce, transport the produce, and sell the produce. Those 2 people are the same all the way down the chain and those 2 people also own and live on this farm. Our names are Shannon and Bryan. We have a strong self-interest in producing safe food: so we don’t lose our reputation, we don’t lose our farm (which is also our home) and because we are also eaters of the food we produce.
Yes, we are a small farm. We can’t claim millions of dollars in revenue or big export markets. But we are leaders in real food safety. The kind that isn’t only able to efficiently advertise recall information. But where people know our names and faces, can visit our farm or see us at the market, can call us up on the phone.
Even though we’re just a 2-person farm, and we don’t have a “food safety specialist” on staff, we make sure to always update our knowledge around food safety. We think about each new infrastructure project and how it will impact food safety. We research food safety trends that may be coming into regulation in the future (because we’re still young farmers….we’ve got many years in the future we need to look towards). We created our own food safety manual (from a great free online template!). And, as certified organic farmers, there are some inborn food safety practices in the organic standards (like the required record-keeping, the monitoring or testing of any compost used, the regular water testing for washing and irrigating crops). We do these things without anyone telling us we have to. We do them because this farm is our life’s work and we’re passionate about it and don’t want anything to risk it.
And that organic frozen berry-Hepatitis A recall has further deepened our commitment to buy the food we don’t produce ourselves from other small-scale farmers with a face and name that we know.
I know our governments have their own food safety plans…..but what’s your own personal food safety plan?