Sometimes, the premium we pay for local foods is not about price. In August, a fourth-generation family farm selling strawberries in Oregon was implicated in the E. coli-related death of an elderly woman.
Later in the month, federal authorities warned that two strains of salmonella had been detected in live poultry shipped from an Ohio company specializing in fowl for backyard farms. More than 100 people, some of them small children, were sickened.
The incidents lack the magnitude of the peanut butter, egg or spinach scares, but the implications are, in some ways, much more worrisome because of their ability to flare and dissipate before investigating agencies are even notified.
Home food gardeners spent $3 billion on their hobby last year, while a specialty publication devoted to backyard poultry enthusiasts boasted nearly 80,000 subscribers. The healthy growth in the number of farmers' markets and similar venues offers numerous resale opportunities. It's extremely difficult to track the byzantine path these types of products take before arriving in someone's pantry.
The sellers in both outbreaks were under some level of regulation and subject to safety inspections. No charges have been filed in either case, and likely will not be. The relatively narrow scope of the events nevertheless has reignited calls for the blanket regulation of smaller food purveyors. Under the provisions of the Tester Amendment of the Food Safety Modernization Act, food companies earning less than $500,000 from direct-to-consumer sales are not subject to inspection.
The major food industry organizations opposed the measure, arguing that the whole purpose of the law was to reverse years of after-the-fact recalls and empower federal agencies to proactively prevent tainted food from getting to the public.
One provision in the amendment does permit the Food and Drug Administration to withdraw the exemption if it can directly link a farm to an outbreak, but unless the farm is found to be in egregious violation of food safety standards, such a punitive move would seem, at best, heavy-handed.
As the debate continues, the incidents are a sober reminder that vigilance at the roadside farmstand is just as important as the binder-thick protocols used in the giant packing house. All stakeholders in the food industry — including supermarkets, which have adopted many aspects of the local food movement — need to remind their customers that “local” does not automatically mean safe.