Artisanal Agrifood Processing and Food Safety Regulation: Responding to the Concerns of Small Processors and Regulators in Michigan

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2010: $9,903.30
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Grant Recipient: Michigan State University
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Jim Bingen
Michigan State University

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Crop Production: food product quality/safety
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, value added
  • Sustainable Communities: public policy


    Artisan food processors and Michigan food safety inspectors were interviewed in a qualitative study to identify means of improving the regulatory process for small and medium food processors. The rapport between artisans and inspectors emerged as an important aspect of the regulatory process. Artisans and inspectors who formed positive relationships reported working together to identify ways for producers to comply with requirements while pursuing (where possible) their own styles of production. These findings were discussed in focus groups of artisans and inspectors. Outreach included recommendations for regulators and small and medium food processors.


    Background of the Problem

    Michigan enjoys a great diversity of agricultural production and a long tradition of small-scale processing. However, the number of small processors has dwindled over the past 50 years, creating a bottleneck for the small farmers who depended on local processing (Cantrell 2010). Consistent with the present governor’s commitment to launch an “era of innovation and reinvention” (Davis 2011), there are opportunities for small processors to be part of the reinvention and revitalization of the state’s rural economy.

    More than in other North Central states, economic difficulties in Michigan offer incentive for state policymakers to encourage small agrifood entrepreneurs. Although Michigan’s cottage food law exempts some homemade products from licensing, it applies to a very limited number of home processors. The state’s food law, based upon the US Food Code used by many states, does not otherwise differentiate between small and large food businesses. The Michigan Food Policy Council recommends that the state assist small- and medium-sized agrifood businesses in navigating and achieving compliance with existing regulations (Michigan Food Policy Council 2006). In 2010, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) created a Small Business Subcommittee Workgroup to discuss ways to make food regulations responsive to the conditions of small agrifood businesses. In 2011, MDARD funded Michigan Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS) to conduct a survey of and host discussion forums with small agrifood businesses to identify their perceptions of regulations and the impacts of regulations on them. MIFFS’ research evidenced confusion and frustration among food entrepreneurs as they navigated regulations and worked to communicate their plans to regulators (Buckley et al. 2011). The current study builds on both efforts with in-depth research.

    Small processors consulted on the development of the proposal for this study indicated that current food safety regulations were both beneficial and constraining. While they gained valuable information about food safety and proper procedures from inspectors, food safety regulations constrained the establishment and profitability of their operations. For example, they reported that inspectors were sometimes inconsistent in identifying violations or required corrective actions of uncertain value to processing operations. At the same time, regulators consulted on this proposal wanted to encourage small agrifood businesses, but without compromising food safety standards. Regulators wanted a better understanding of processors’ primary concerns, and guidance on developing better communication. Both groups agreed on the importance of bridging their sometimes differing perspectives.

    Although this report focuses on Michigan, we hope that it provides guidance for other North Central states. At the federal level, debate over provisions in the Food Safety Modernization Act demonstrates the need for systematic research on policies to foster small and medium agrifood producers (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition 2011).

    Literature Review

    Small- and medium-scale processing bolsters sustainable agrifood systems. This study is predicated on the expectation that improving small processor feasibility will increase markets for small farmers in Michigan and the North Central Region, in turn increasing farm profitability and enhancing quality of life for farmers and rural areas (Sumner 2005). A broader range of markets can also diversify farmers’ production choices, contributing to environmental quality (Altieri 2009). Small and medium processors expand the range of regional farm products available to consumers and strengthen connections among consumers and producers. With more opportunities for local investment and for creative, mutually supportive livelihoods, we envision long-term improvement in communities’ problem-solving capacity, self-reliance, and vitality (Cantrell and Lewis 2010; Lyson 2004; Shuman 1998). These changes enhance agriculture’s social responsibility and enrich our society (Boyte and Kari 1996).

    This study contributes to research on sustainable agrifood production in three respects. First, it adds to the growing body of scholarship that addresses small- and medium-scale processing as a component of local and alternative agrifood systems development. Second, it specifically examines artisan processing—relatively small-scale, handcraft production—in a contemporary, industrialized context. Third, the research investigates food safety inspections as a substantive component of food safety regulatory policy.

    First, many local food system studies focus on direct farm marketing (e.g., Stephenson et al. 2008), but a growing body of work examines processing and more complex systems. NCR-SARE in Wisconsin hosted a “Scaling Up Local Good Food Systems” regional training in 2010. NCR-SARE–funded studies have explored farm to school initiatives (DeBlieck 2008; Izumi 2006), sheep’s milk cheese (Turner 2009), hard cider (Gleason 2007), organic processing (Jacobson 2006), and small meat processors (Thiboumery 2007). These investigations range from supply chain coordination and distribution to technical assistance and marketing research. The current study contributes to this work by addressing challenges facing small processors in meeting regulations.

    Second, there has been little empirical study to inform food safety policy affecting artisans. Little research has focused on artisan processing in contemporary, regulated, and industrialized contexts. (For exceptions, see Paxson (2008, 2010, 2011, 2012); Terrio (1998, 2000).) Research on artisanship has focused mostly on historical and developing country contexts. There is also a dearth of research on food safety regulation and artisan processing to resolve disagreements over the impacts of the regulation of artisanship. Research in the US has been directed toward the barriers that small food business owners report (Buckley et al. 2011; Worosz et al. 2008) and has not focused equally on benefits that producers may experience.

    Third, food safety inspections of these facilities have not been observed, and regulators’ own experiences of small food businesses and inspections have not been researched. Food safety regulations shape the development of sustainable agrifood systems and the opportunities available to producers, including artisan agrifood processors. To investigate the food safety regulation of artisan processing, this study focused on food safety inspections. Regulatory enforcement has been relatively neglected in the study of US food law (Law 2006). Yet food law is “made” during the enforcement of food safety regulation just as it is made in more formal policymaking processes (Lipsky 2010 [1980]). Indeed, “the actual behavior of officials [is] the only legal reality that we really know” (Commons 1924, p. 112). Studies of regulatory enforcement suggest that outcomes are the product of the discretion and interpretive flexibility that inspectors exercise, interactions between inspectors and regulated parties, and the experiences that each brings to inspection situations (Arce 1989; Gormley 1998; Lipsky 2010 [1980]; May and Wood 2003; van Zwanenberg et al. 2011).

    When policy debate focuses on substantive law, that is, legislation and administrative regulations, it risks reproducing a common and yet idealized view of regulations that depicts a linear, unidirectional trajectory from legislation to enforcement. It assumes that legislative and regulatory mandates translate straightforwardly into regulatory outcomes. Yet in practice, inspections introduce issues beyond those defined in codified law. First, many regulatory requirements are broad and require interpretation by food safety inspectors, who take into account contextual details of specific facilities (Grattet and Jenness 2005; Yapp and Fairman 2006). Second, interactions between food safety regulators and producers may extend beyond strictly technical questions of compliance. Some agencies adopt a consulting approach that emphasizes cooperation and education (Braithwaite et al. 1987; Macauley 1993; May and Wood 2003; Scholz and Gray 1997). Writing on the sociology of regulation, Hutter (1989) describes an “accommodative” approach in which inspectors explain to regulated parties the reasons for requirements and discuss possible means for attaining them. “Patience and understanding underpin the whole strategy, which is regarded as an open-ended and long-term venture” (Hutter 1989, p. 155). Third, regulators work to accommodate individual producers’ notions of right and wrong as they enforce regulations (Lowe and Ward 1997). Producers’ decisions about whether and how to comply with regulations are influenced by their interaction with enforcers (Fairman and Yapp 2005; Henson and Heasman 1998).

    Project objectives:

    This study aimed to generate processor guidelines to help processors meet regulations cost-effectively, regulatory guidelines for the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), and a stakeholder report for practitioners in both groups. The study responded to small processor concerns that regulations constrained their ability to create and expand businesses and to respond to market demand for local farm products. It investigated 1) artisan views of and experiences with regulations and inspections, and 2) food safety regulators’ experiences with and perceptions of artisan processing. The proposal was developed with the collaboration of small processors and regulators.

    Following are the objectives as they appeared in our proposal.

    Short-Term Objectives
    • that processor guidelines improve processors’ knowledge about regulatory compliance and inspections, help them prepare better for inspections, and prevent misunderstandings that can cost time and money.

      that regulatory guidelines identify ways in which inspector directives and trainings can be improved and increase regulator awareness of small processor educational needs.

      that the study’s stakeholder report improve both groups’ understanding of each other’s perspectives and expectations.

    Intermediate-Term Objectives
    • that small processors achieve more cost-effective compliance with food safety regulations.

      that regulatory inspections, materials, and communication with small processors improve.

      that food safety regulatory policy change.

    Long-Term Objectives
    • that these changes improve the profitability and sustainability of small processor businesses, stimulate Michigan’s small agrifood sector, and enhance quality of life for agrifood producers, rural communities, and society as a whole.
    Remarks on the Study's Scope and on Its Definition of "Artisanship"

    The scope of the study was slightly modified between proposal submission and the beginning of the research. First, the initial proposal called for a focus on small fruit, vegetable, honey, and cheese processors. However, artisan bread bakers were (and continue to be) a growing trend in Michigan. To include them, the scope was modified to focus on bread, cheese, and jam producers.

    Second, the initial proposal focused on small artisan processors. However, neither “small” nor “artisan” is defined consistently in the scholarly literature, by practitioners, or even by economic development entities. We had aimed to focus on processors who employed fewer than 10 people and who used handcrafting methods, with minimal automation. We found that some handcrafting facilities with minimal automation employed more than 10 people, and we consequently eliminated that size criterion. In the working definition of artisanship that we developed, processors emphasized handcraft production, engaged in each step of the production process, and produced at a small or medium scale.

    The Use of "We" and "I" in This Report

    This study formed part of the doctoral research of the project coordinator, Jenifer Buckley. Her doctoral advisor, Dr. Jim Bingen, provided guidance throughout the study. Where used in this report, “I” refers to Buckley, and “we” refers to both.

    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.