An Integrated Approach to Understanding Food Safety Practices and Attitudes Among Local Food Systems Actors

Final Report for LNC11-331

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2011: $128,102.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Grant Recipient: Ohio State University
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
Doug Doohan
Ohio State University
Co-Coordinators:
Dr. Jason Parker
The Ohio State University
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Project Information

Summary:

Interest in preventing and controlling food safety risks has exploded in recent years as incidents involving contaminated produce and other foods have been widely reported. Consumer concern about food safety contributes to increased regulatory oversight and development of shifting and sometimes-dubious food safety metrics among industry buyers designed mostly for large scale farms. At the same time, the local foods movement has prompted the expansion of the fresh produce industry with small and medium scale produce farmers selling direct to their customers via farmers’ markets (FMs). With this growth there is a need to understand the policies established by FMs to guide practices of their vendors and provide consistent food safety criteria.

The primary outcome anticipated through this research was an improved context specific knowledge of food safety practices, roles, and attitudes among North Central Region (NCR) local food system actors from the farm to the table. The team used a multi-method research approach to identify testable, scale appropriate practices among NCR growers, managers of FM and consumers, ultimately to provide a base of knowledge to investigate the effectiveness of food safety practices along this continuum.  

The final sample of farmers willing to provide results of self-audits proved too small to derive statistically valid conclusions; however, certain trends were detected by considering the sample as a collection of independent case studies. Thirty farmers’ market managers from throughout the NCR participated in telephone interviews about the food safety requirements of their market and their perceptions of consumer needs and marketer compliance.  Our analysis shows that while many market managers did not see a role for the market in providing produce safety training, managers who received previous produce safety training were more likely to provide that type of information to their vendors. 

Finally, 772 consumers completed a series of questions probing their knowledge, perceptions and attitudes regarding the safety of produce acquired at FM.  While most consumers reported concern for the safety of our food supply, fewer of them had concerns about the safety of directly marketed produce and more had moved to purchasing locally grown produce in response to a food safety concern. New knowledge of FM managers’, farmer participants and consumers perceived and actual roles in ensuring food safety, as well as needs for implementing programs was gained through this project and will serve as a basis for future educational programs targeted at these groups, and in particular the FM mangers. This information has provided the basis for conducting future outreach to address the importance of produce safety of farmers’ market vendors and may have additional application to CSA and farm stand operators, too.

Introduction:

Interest among growers, regulatory agencies and academics regarding the prevention and control of food safety risks has exploded in recent years as incidents involving contaminated produce and other foods have been widely repo1ied. Consumer concern about food safety is leading to increased regulatory oversight and the development of dubious food safety metrics among industry buyers (e.g. wholesalers, grocery chains) that tend to be designed for large scale farms. Concomitantly, some consumers have chosen locally grown foods as a "safer" alternative to foods marketed conventionally. These local foods are most often marketed directly to consumers.

This creates a twofold problem. First, many prescribed food safety practices are not perceived to be appropriately developed for small and medium scale farms. Second, while there is reason to believe that local food actors do have effective food safety practices (there are greater cases of foodborne illness sourced to large-scale operations), there is little research to document or justify the belief that these foods are "safer". The purpose of this research was to conduct systematic research on actors engaged in these local food systems (LFS), specifically the consumers, market managers, and vendors of farmers’ markets. A goal of this was to identify existing scale appropriate food safety practices for markets and on farms that in turn can be used to provide and deliver educational outreach to growers and market managers, and inform future scale-based food safety research. Using a multi-method approach, we focused primarily on food safety practices and attitudes among those involved in direct marketing of fresh fruits and vegetables at farmer's markets.

An interesting development occurred from the time that this proposal was developed to when we received funding to conduct the research. The perceptions of food safety as a research topic reached an increased risk status among members of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the Ohio State University. This increased scrutiny of the topic was likely the result of numerous high-profile and industry-wide incidents of pathogen outbreaks in fresh produce carried in the media, and the passing of the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 that seeks to address the former. We did not anticipate this increased level of caution for our 18-month project as our research instruments were requiring increased evaluation and full review to minimize social and economic risks to our participants. While understandable, this led to several modifications in our project timeline and eliminated our fourth objective (described below).

Project Objectives:

The following three objectives were identified by our research team at the beginning of the project. Each is briefly outlined and followed with an explanation of how they were met.  

Objective 1 was an increased understanding of consumer food safety attitudes and a scaled approach to food safety using a mail survey of 3500 Ohio residents and a performance target of 20% response rate. The mail survey of Ohio residents was conducted with 772 usable responses, a 22% response rate.

Objective 2 was to increase knowledge of the perceived and actual roles of farmers’ market managers in ensuring food safety, and to identify their food safety information needs. Our performance target was to conduct 30 interviews with market managers. A telephone interview protocol was developed and conducted with a total of 30 market managers in eight of the North Central Region states.

Objective 3 was to develop a research-based knowledge of food safety practices of NCR small and medium growers and identification of new testable, scale appropriate practices of twenty Ohio growers. A series of six on-farm produce safety case studies were conducted using the Cornell GAPs grower self-assessment tool. We fell short of this goal partly as a result of delays in IRB approval, but largely due to farmer perception of the data collection and reluctance to participate in such an in-depths process where fears of growing government oversight were reported (i.e. this USDA-funded project offered confidentiality to a skeptical audience already concerned about proposed new government regulations and standards governing the production of fresh produce).

Objective 4 was to pilot test 30 innovative farmers’ market produce safety programs, one at each participating farmers’ market. Our Institutional Review Board (IRB) ruled that we could not develop and conduct these pilot programs because they would over-incentivize participation of the market managers in our study. The alternative to this was to conduct a grant competition with a Request for Applications (RFA) from all 2000 NCR market managers and organize a formal review panel. This activity was outside of the scope of our project capacity and timeline and was removed from our objectives.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Dr. Molly Bean

Research

Materials and methods:

We conducted three data collections phases in understanding the role of consumers, market managers and vendors in ensuring produce safety at farmers’ markets.

In Phase 1, a survey of Ohio residents to assess consumer attitudes of food safety and a scaled approach to food safety using the Dillman Total Design Method (the TDM is a multiple contact method that includes recruitment, survey mailing, reminders, and a follow-up survey mailing; Dillman 2000). Surveys were mailed to 3500 Ohio residents with a response of 772, or 22%.

In Phase 2, we conducted thirty (30) telephone interviews with market managers in eight U.S. North Central Region states including: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The goal of this data collection was to identify market manager actual and perceived roles in ensuring food safety at farmers' markets and general attitudes regarding food safety. The interviews consisted of a semi-structured set of open and closed-ended questions. Participants received a twenty dollar gift card by mail for participation. Using Morgan et al. (2002) for guidance on risk analysis interview protocols, we established this number as adequate to provide a broad range of responses for the project. This number was primarily based on the understanding that interviews yield most unique data with 20 to 30 individuals, after that participant answers become repetitive.

We used a USDA list of farmers’ markets in the U.S. and their market managers that is publicly available on the USDA web site. There are over 2000 markets in the study region from which we chose 5 from each state using two sets of nested criteria for selection. First were criteria for the market: we sought farmers’ markets in each of the North Central Region SARE states that are in urban or rural locations. Second criteria were the required characteristics of participants: 1) that they were adults and 2) that they were farmers’ market managers.

Using Dillman’s TDM, once a list of potential participants was created, market managers receive a recruitment letter accompanied by an informed consent statement. Approximately one week after the letter was received they were contacted by telephone and formally asked to participate and time to conduct the telephone interview was scheduled.

As Phase 3 in the research project, we recruited ten (10) produce growers who sell at different markets in Ohio to perform an in-depth self-guided assessment of their produce safety practices and participate in a debriefing interview. Six participants completed the entire protocol. We used the Cornell GAPs “Food Safety Begins on the Farm: A Grower Self-Assessment of Food Safety Risks”, which is a widely accepted industry tool for assessing on-farm produce safety.

Using a “drop-off and pick-up” method, the self-assessments were delivered to participants who were given an overview of “how to” by one of our research team members. A pickup and debriefing interview time was scheduled at this time. During the debriefing interviews, we used an informed consent statement and interview guide of questions topics designed to collect baseline information from farmers on their perceptions of the GAPs Modules as an assessment tool, barriers to using the practices in the GAPs Modules, ease of use of the GAPs Modules, and areas that are overlooked including potentially new and otherwise unverified practices.

Research results and discussion:

We are currently analyzing the data from the three research phases. A timeline of activities is listed below and followed by a preliminary report of analysis from the Ohio Consumer Survey and the Market Manager Interviews.

2012

  • Developed project link on Social Responsibility Initiative (SRI) website http://sri.osu.edu/projects and postcard to describe the project and disseminated at Ohio Farmers Market Manager’s Conference.
  • Planned and conducted Ohio household mail survey to better understand consumer food safety attitudes and a scaled approach to food safety.
  • Compiled a list of North Central Region farmers’ markets and managers that was further developed into a list of potential interview participants.
  • Developed preliminary farmers’ market manager interview guide for Institutional Review Board approval.

2013

  • Prepared and refined the market manager interview guide and accompanying materials related to recruitment and process.
  • Submitted Market Manager Interview protocol to Institutional Review Board – round 1
  • Further refinement of the NCR market management list and compiling of the NCR Market Managers for interviewing.
  • Refined Market Manager Interview Guide and Market Manager Recruitment Strategy
  • Submitted Market Manager Interview protocol to Institutional Review Board – round 2. Continued refinement of Final Market Manager Interview Guide and Process per recommendations of Institutional Review Board.
  • Draft of farmer self-assessment protocol, including identification of self-assessment tool and farmer recruitment letters for Institutional Review Board submission

2014

  • Submitted Market Manager Interview protocol to Institutional Review Board – round 3.
  • Added additional personnel to project, including Gerri Isaacson and Roger Downer.
  • Received approval for the Market Manager Interview protocol from Institutional Review Board.
  • Sought and completed 30 Market Manager Interviews.
    • Recruited 35 Market Managers to participate in the study; 30 Market Managers completed the study.
    • Preliminary report on the data analysis prepared.
    • Data coding and analysis currently being conducted.
  • Completed the on-farm audit materials and protocol:
    • Developed on-farm audit materials including incorporating the Cornell GAPs self-assessment tool with data collection binders and instructions for the self-assessment protocol and follow-up interviews.
    • Finalized farmer recruitment letters.
  • Submitted On-farm Self-Assessment materials protocol to Institutional Review Board – round 1.
  • Development of guidelines for a grant competition to support food safety programs at farmers’ markets.
  • Submitted guidelines for a grant competition to support food safety programs at farmers’ markets protocol to Institutional Review Board – round 1.
  • Submitted guidelines for a grant competition to support food safety programs at farmers’ markets protocol to Institutional Review Board – round 2.

2015

  • Denied approval for guidelines for a grant competition to support food safety programs at farmers’ markets protocol from Institutional Review Board. Determined to be over-incentivize and alternative concept was outside the timeline and scope of this project.
  • Continue the analysis of market manager interviews.
  • Submitted On-farm Self-Assessment materials protocol to Institutional Review Board – round 2.
  • Approval of On-farm Self-Assessment materials protocol from Institutional Review Board.
  • Arrange for 10 participants to self-administer the on-farm audits.
  • Completion of six self-administered on-farm audits and follow-up interviews.
  • Analysis of on-farm audit findings and follow-up interviews.

Preliminary Findings of the Ohio Consumer Survey on Food-Safety Specific Survey Questions

In the Ohio Consumer Survey of 2012, several food systems and food safety issues were assessed to understand the level of agreement consumers held for each. Table 1 presents these levels of agreement or disagreement with the issues that include perceptions of decreasing safety in the food system, whether Organic is inherently safer than conventional foods, and preferences for purchasing foods. Of note, a majority of respondents reported agreement that food produced on small-scale farms is as safe as food produced on large-scale farms (53%), which is contrary to the discourse created by large-scale producers and industry food safety advocates (Parker et al. 2016). Other areas of majority agreement were in the belief that increased food safety regulation was needed (52%) and that most people prefer to purchase from small, local growers (66%). A super-majority of 80% responded that food safety practices should be the same for both large and small farms. A majority was undecided regarding whether food produced in Ohio is safer than foods produced elsewhere (57%) and that biotechnology is having a negative impact on the safety of our food supply (55%).

Item

% SA/A

% U

% SD/D

Food is not as safe as it was 10 years ago. 

44

29

27

Organic foods are safer than conventionally produced foods.

36

45

19

It is impossible to avoid contamination of my food.

32

36

32

I believe food produced in Ohio is safer than foods produced elsewhere.

20

57

23

Food produced on small-scale farms is as safe as food produced on large-scale farms.

53

35

13

In general, increased regulation of food safety is needed.

52

34

15

Food safety practices should be the same for both large and small farms.

80

13

7

Biotechnology is having a negative impact on the safety of our food supply.

31

55

15

Prefer to purchase from small, local growers

66

23

11

Table 1. Preliminary Look at Descriptive for Food Safety Items on Ohio Survey (weighted and includes only two strata). SA/A = Strongly Agree/Agree, U=Undecided, SD/D=Strongly Disagree/Disagree.

 

Overall, participants responded in the majority agreement to our list of potential concerns that included the safety of our food supply (70%), pesticides in food (65%), growth hormones in meat or milk (62%), and genetically modified foods (58%). These last three are seemingly contradictory given the high level of uncertainty of risk to our food system posed by biotechnology reported in Table 1. The presence of uncertainly, however, is itself the likely explanation for some of the concerns.

 

Item

% Not Concerned

% Somewhat Concerned

% Very Concerned

The safety of our food supply.

5

25

70

Pesticide residues in food.

5

30

65

Growth hormones in meat or milk.

7

31

62

Genetically modified foods.

11

31

58

Food safety of fruits or vegetables purchased directly from a farmer.

15

49

36

Table 2. Concern about Food Systems Issues, including Food Safety.

 

The majority of Ohio residents responded that the food safety practices of farmers was very important (68%), with only 4% stating it was not important.

 

 

% Not Important

% Somewhat Important

% Very Important

The food safety practices of farmers.

4

27

68

Table 3. Food safety practices of farmers as a food purchasing consideration.

 

Food safety concerns did not inspire a majority of participants to change their food purchasing behavior, however, it did change their personal behavior in handling or washing fresh produce (Table 4).

 

Activity

Yes %

No %

Stopped buying food product due to a food safety concern.

49

51

Stopped visiting a restaurant due to a food safety concern.

38

62

Bought more locally grown fruits or vegetables due to a food safety concern.

31

69

Changed the way handles or washes fresh fruits and vegetables due to a food safety concern.

55

45

Table 4. Engagement in food related activities in the last year.

 

Preliminary Findings from Farmers’ Market Manager Interviews

A preliminary look at specific questions related to GAP training of market managers was conducted focusing on food safety requirements they have for vendors and the market. We found that if market managers received training in food safety then the market has greater tendency to provide GAP training, to conduct food safety audits, and to have specific rules for food handling. Statistically significant, there is an association between food safety training of managers (Question 16) and provision of food safety information (Question 11-f), according to two-tailed Fisher's exact test. Additional analysis is planned for this data.

 

 

 

Whether market provides GAP training

 

 

 

 

Yes

No

Total

 

 

Frequency

 %

Frequency

 %

Frequency

 %

Whether manager has food safety training

Yes

2

14%

12

86%

14

100%

No or irrelevant answer

0

0%

16

100%

16

100%

Total

 

2

 

28

 

30

 

The association between these two variables is not significant according to two-tailed Fisher's exact test (p=0.209)

Table 5. Cross-tabulation between food safety training of managers (Question 16) and provision of GAP training in the market (Question 11-b)

 

 

 

Whether market provides food safety information

 

 

 

 

Yes

No

Total

 

 

Frequency

 %

Frequency

 %

Frequency

 %

Whether manager has food safety training

Yes

9

64%

5

36%

14

100%

No or irrelevant answer

2

13%

14

88%

16

100%

Total

 

11

 

19

 

30

 

The association between these two variables is significant according to two-tailed Fisher's exact test (p=0.007)

Table 6. Cross-tabulation between food safety training of managers (Question 16) and provision of food safety information (Question 11-f)

 

 

 

 

Whether market conducts food safety audits

 

 

 

 

Yes

No

Total

 

 

Frequency

 %

Frequency

 %

Frequency

 %

Whether manager has food safety training

Yes

10

71%

4

29%

14

100%

No or irrelevant answer

5

31%

11

69%

16

100%

Total

 

15

 

15

 

30

 

The association between these two variables is not significant according to two-tailed Fisher's exact test (p=0.066)

Table 7. Cross-tabulation between food safety training of managers (Question 16) and conduct of food safety audits (Question 6)

 

 

 

Whether market has specific rules for food handling

 

 

 

 

Yes

No

Total

 

 

Frequency

 %

Frequency

 %

Frequency

 %

Whether manager has food safety training

Yes

6

43%

8

57%

14

100%

No or irrelevant answer

2

13%

14

88%

16

100%

Total

 

8

 

22

 

30

 

The association between these two variables is not significant according to two-tailed Fisher's exact test (p=0.101)

Table 8. Cross-tabulation between food safety training of managers (Question 16) and specific rules for food handling (Question 9).

Research conclusions:

The expected outcomes associated with this research are divided into short, intermediate, and long-term. In the short term, the research resulted in improved context specific knowledge and understanding of food safety practices, roles, and attitudes among NC Region (NCR) local food system actors, specifically consumers and market managers, and, to a limited extent, vendors, as follows:

  • The research resulted in new knowledge of consumer attitudes and expectations of a scaled approach to food safety at various scales of production in the food system.
  • It filled our gaps in our understanding of perceptions that farmers' market managers hold for their roles in food safety. Further, it identified potential roles and needs in ensuring food safety at their markets.
  • It identified that ASSESSMENTS undocumented, testable, scale appropriate practices among NCR small and medium-sized growers that will provide a base of knowledge to investigate the effectiveness of food safety practices on these farms;
  • Revealed the increased extent of concern among institutional actors, such as IRB panel members, for food safety issues and the potential for risk of harm from research conducted with produce growers, consumers, and market managers.

 

The intermediate term outcomes associated with the proposed research were as follows:

  • To take these short term benchmarks to identify food safety information needs of market managers while increasing their knowledge of the GAPs that should be expected of their growers and ensure that, in the event of a food borne illness outbreak, the market managers are prepared to address the situation appropriately.
  • Develop increased knowledge of consumer attitudes and a scaled approach to food safety will increase our confidence and understanding of the level of consumer acceptance for scaled approaches to food safety and increase our understanding of the impact scaled approaches may have on purchasing. This knowledge can be followed with consumer market analyses to understand consumer willingness to pay for produce safety standard programs or, alternatively, produce seeking behavior from trusted sources and the factors that shape that trust.
  • Knowledge of market manager roles will also assist in building rapport with market managers that will be useful for gaining their assistance and accessing their perspective in the development of GAPs programs for local food producers that are both appropriate for market growers and that have market managers support.

We anticipate our short term and intermediate term outcomes will contribute to the long term outcomes of helping ensure that farms of all sizes have access to scale appropriate food safety recommendations. Our continued analysis of the data and development of outreach webinars and fact sheets will help develop an awareness of a need for alternatives to a one-size-fits-all food safety standard, and build on the success of groups like NSAC, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, who has successfully worked with the FDA to alter proposed rules that would be detrimental to operators of small-scale farms. This will minimize the unanticipated negative consequences of new regulations maintain small and medium scale farms as well as assure consumers that they provide verifiably safe foods regardless of the size of their operation.

Economic Analysis

We have not yet conduct economic analyses of the data that was collected. Future analysis of our market manager interview and consumer survey data will explore the relationships of market economics to decision-making, and the relationships of produce safety perceptions of consumers with household income and food sourcing behavior.

Farmer Adoption

Informational materials are being created to share the results of this study with market managers and market vendors. Specifically, we plan to stress the relationships among consumer perceptions and trust of farmers’ markets as safe venues for purchasing and the need to assure that steps are taken in the form of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) so that these social and economic relationships continue. 

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Professional Journals

Research results are currently being written in the following draft manuscripts:

  • The Safe, The Unsafe and The Local: Consumer Perceptions of Farmers’ Markets”
  • “Produce Safety at Farmers’ Markets – How Managers See their Role”

Professional Presentations

Parts of this research and associated findings were included in the following presentations:

2015 J.S. Parker. “Shifting Visions of the U.S. Food System(s): Social and Structural Barriers to Sustainability.” Annual Meetings of the Society for Applied Anthropology, Mar 24 – 28, Pittsburgh, PA.

  1. J.S. Parker. “The Challenge of a Socially Sustainable Agriculture: What can Extension do to Foster a Socially Sustainable Agriculture.” Joint Annual Meetings of the Agriculture and Human Values Society and the Association for the Study of Food and Society, 19 – 20 Jun, Lansing, MI.
  2. J.S. Parker. “Supporting Local and Sustainable Agriculture with Applied Social Science.” Presented to Extension and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, University of Vermont, Apr 18, Burlington, VT.

Project Outcomes

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

We are still assessing the findings to determine what the next steps in research should include.  

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.