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

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports

Commodities

Not commodity specific

Practices

  • Crop Production: food product quality/safety
  • Farm Business Management: market study, marketing management, new enterprise development

    Abstract:

    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.

    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.