How do I talk to farmers about their food safety practices?

Tips for food service directors on how to purchase locally produced foods directly from farmers.

As a Michigan State University (MSU) Extension community food systems educator working on farm-to-school projects, food service directors sometimes ask me how they can purchase local foods directly from farmers. Often times, food service directors purchase local foods through their broadline distributors, which deliver many of the foods and kitchen supplies for cafeterias and restaurants in Michigan. However, there are times when food service directors want a specific local product from a local farmer.

Before working directly with a farmer, food service directors should check with their purchasing agents to determine if there are specific requirements or paperwork that must be completed by vendors. Typically, food service companies want farmers to carry liability insurance policies, which provide some protection for the school and demonstrate the farmer’s commitment to stand behind the quality of his/her products. Sometimes, schools and hospitals require that farmers obtain Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification either from the USDA or a third-party auditor. GAP certification is not a state or federal requirement for farmers to sell to institutions, it is a food safety certification program that helps farmers maintain a high standard of on-farm production and post-production food safety practices.

Food service directors can purchase local foods directly from farmers that are not GAP certified if they are not violating their own school or food service company’s purchasing standards. Keep in mind how the locally sourced foods will be prepared and served. Cooking foods reduces the risk of foodborne illness. Special attention should be given to foods that will be served raw as these foods should always be prewashed either by the farmer, processor, distributor or food service staff, and prior to serving.

Below are some questions, based on some of the GAP standards, that food service directors can ask farmers to understand the practices that will keep food from being contaminated before it reaches the school. MSU Extension encourages food service directors to work with the farm owner and operators to visit the farm during the harvest season and observe the food safety practices.

  • How do you prevent your food from being contaminated by employees? How do you train your employees about food safety?
  • Do you use pesticides or herbicides? If so, how do you make sure you are using them properly?
  • How do you maintain proper temperature control for harvested produce from the time it is picked to when it is delivered to the school?
  • What water source are you using to irrigate crops? If it is a well or pond, how often do you test this water source? (Municipal water is tested and regulated on a frequent basis. Well water and surface water must be tested by property owners to ensure safety.)
  • Have you ever had a problem with contaminated food before? How did you handle it? (This is very rare but worth asking.)

Food service directors can also ask farmers if they have a written food safety plan or if they have performed a Michigan Safe Food Risk Assessment to review their practices.

There are many resources to support farm-to-school efforts. Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems developed a step-by-step guide for purchasing local foods available for free online. The USDA provides many resources for school food service directors interested in purchasing local foods. Cultivate Michigan is a statewide local food purchasing campaign that encourages schools and hospitals to purchase four featured foods each year and track their progress.

To find a farm-to-school specialist in your community, visit the website or contact your local MSU Extension office through our toll free number at 1-888-678-3464. 

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