Ohio Produce Farmers Monitor Food Safety Bills In Congress.

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While much attention is focused this week on financial regulatory reform on Capitol Hill, congress is also considering stricter food safety standards. The proposed food safety measure aims to reduce food recalls and instances of food borne illnesses. Consumers, restauranteurs and some small and medium sized farms in Ohio are closely watching what congress does. WOSU’s Tom Borgerding reports.

Here on Main Street in downtown Lancaster a handful of restaurants offer patrons menu items ranging from pizza and spinach quiche to mocha freezes to sausage, egg and cheese sandwiches. While these restaurants and thousands of others prepare and serve their specialty plates, congress is considering new regulations to promote food safety. On this week-day morning, Michelle Lutz of Lancaster is walking to her job about a block away at Job and Family Services. She says there’s always room for improvement when it comes to food safety.

“Obviously because there are things that go on out there.”Says Lutz. “So food safety should be important to Congress because people’s well-being should be there number one priority.”

In fact, food recalls in the past several years involving spinach, peanuts, and other food products have prompted the U-S house and senate to consider separate measures to boost food safety. The Centers for Disease Control estimates as many as 76-million cases of food-borne illnesses annually in the U-S. The pending bills would require the Food and Drug Administration to more closely monitor farms and food processing plants and make it easier to find sources of food-borne illnesses . But, Jim O’Hara, formerly with the FDA, and current Director of the National Produce Safety Project says the proposed uniform standards are also problematic. “I mean how do you get it right for farms in California, New York, Ohio, Georgia. How do you get it right for different crops like leafy greens, tomatoes, melons.” O’Hara says.

Agricultural economist John Ikerd of the University of Missouri says a uniform national food safety bill could have what he calls “deleterious effects” on smaller farms if they’re required to file and follow complex sanitation rules, keep more records and be subject to more government inspections. Bob Jones, owner of the Chef’s Garden farm in Huron, Ohio is more direct. He says the proposed new rules would cut or eliminate profits.

“There are national proposals floating around right now that are a one size fits all model that would put at least 90 percent of the farms in Ohio out of business if they were to come to fruition.” Says Jones. Jones grows vegetables and herbs, that he supplies to restaurants in Columbus and other parts of the state. He’s part of an expanding local food movement that telescopes the time between a vegetable leaving the field to landing on a dinner plate.

“The standard that we use in our personal operation is we want product on the plate in 24 hours. Now in most instances that works. Two to three days old is the longest we want that product to be.” Jones says with highly perishable product, tight timetables and thin profit margins he constantly monitors the safety of his produce. Ohio Farmer magazine editor Tim White says Jones’ farm is situated on the eastern edge of what’s called Ohio’s ‘muck-growing region’ stretching from Bucyrus and Upper Sandusky to Celeryville.

“In that area around Celeryville, Ohio we produce a great deal of radishes.” Says White. “One of the biggest radish farms in the country and carrots and then also scattered around there’s also some cucumber production.”

White says a small amount of celery is also grown in Celeryville. Farther west, near the Indiana border, farms are generally larger with one dominant crop.

“We do have in Napolean the largest Campbell soup factory that produces tomato soup in the country.”

White and Bob Jones both say there is and have been rules in place to inspect conditions on the farm to assure a safe food supply. But, the proposed federal rules would impose stricter safety measures, in part, to assure consumers like Michelle Lutz of Lancaster.

“Of course, I wash all my vegetables, even the bagged lettuce when you pull it out you still wash it. You do the best that you can and you’ve just gotta hope the government’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing to make us all safe.”

Tom Borgerding WOSU News.

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