Last winter the federal government announced a criminal investigation of the owners of a peanut company in Georgia. Peanut butter from the plant sickened hundreds of people and killed five. The outbreak set off a scramble to make food safer across the U.S. and the impacts are now being felt in northern Michigan. It's not clear how much the push for "food safety" will actually make food safer.
It's mainly cherry and apple growers seeking food safety inspections this year. The government isn't requiring farms comply with its safety rules, but some grocery chains and food distributors are. Chris Alpers runs two farms near Leland that grow both cherries and apples and he figures he'll spend $7,000 getting them certified but he isn't sure it will actually amount to safer food.
"Certain things they are requiring us to do might make the fruit a little safer, I suppose" says Alpers.
Nobody has ever heard of a tart cherry making anyone sick and it's hard to imagine the fruit being a little safer. Cherries grow well off the ground. They're not picked by hand and are soaked in water on the way to be processed.
Nevertheless, growers along the coast of Lake Michigan will line up this summer to pay inspectors ninety-two dollars an hour to make sure they're washing their hands correctly and that they have good plans to keep deer from pooping in their orchards.
Alpers thinks most of what is required is reasonable but he says there are some rules they just can't follow, like washing the tanks cherries are shipped in every time one comes back to the farm.
It's not a great time for the cherry industry to absorb new costs. Tart cherries are now worth less than it costs to grow them and that is unlikely to change this year. Dave Edmondson, a grower on Old Mission, says growers sometimes have to wait until the next year before they get paid for their entire crop and the industry is running on fumes.
Edmondson says the companies that are demanding assurances that food is safe are the same ones most committed to selling food at a low price but as a grower he has little choice but to sell his fruit at prices determined by other businesses.
"Or we quit, and that's the conclusion we're coming to," says the fourth generation grower.
Local Food Movement
So far, food safety rules are not hitting farms that are profitable these days, the small ones selling directly to local customers. Even Cherry Capital Foods, a wholesaler in Traverse City that supplies local food to area restaurants and schools is not requiring inspections. Cherry Capital's manager Evan Smith says he doesn't want to see the local farm movement killed with new costs and paperwork. Smith says they visit the farms they work with and he thinks small farms selling to neighbors are not the problem.
"I think the local food economy has probably been safer than the mega food economy for a long time," says Smith.
Still the dangers of a tomato or spinach leaf making someone sick are real. That's why Don Coe, one of the owners of Black Star Farms and a state agriculture commissioner, says it will be better if everyone does something to show their farms are safe and clean. Coe says one illness caused by a small farm selling locally would smear the movement.
"We have to have in place an exceptable level of compliance with good food handling systems," says Coe. "It doesn't have to be as rigid as foods going in the major food channels"
The U.S. Congress may soon decide who needs to pass what sort of safety tests. Under legislation now pending a farmer selling a few bags of spinach at a farmers market could wind up being subject to the same standards as a giant packing house. One question that has not been decided yet is where the money will come from to pay for all the oversight.