Approved Source Policy: Open Letter from County Ag and Health Commissioners

Approved Source Policy: Open Letter from County Ag and Health Commissioners

An Open Letter to Produce Growers, Retail Produce Managers, Restaurant Owners and Other Interested Stakeholders Regarding a Proposed Approved Source Program for Mendocino County

(Prepared by the Mendocino County the Director of Environmental Health,
Mr. David Jensen, and Agriculture Commissioner, Mr. Chuck Morse)

We would like to briefly introduce you to the regulatory concept of
Approved Sources, to explain why this concept is important to small
farmers and retail food facilities, and to share with you a proposal that
Commissioner Morse and I have developed and which we are willing to
pursue with the direct help and involvement of local stakeholders.

I would like to start by emphasizing that our goal is to develop and
implement a practical no-cost program that will protect food safety while
legally opening new markets for local produce growers. We will work with
local stakeholders to develop an Approved Source program that is based
on a set of Best Management Practices. Mendocino County produce
growers will be able to self-register on a county web site. Growers will be
expected to self-certify that they are following those Best Management
Practices. This program will apply only to farm-grown produce. It will not
include the sale of meat or dairy products. Participation will be voluntary.

So, what is an approved source and why are they important?

The California Retail Food Code, commonly referred to as Cal Code, sets
the rules for the operation of food facilities within the State of California.
These are the rules that county inspectors enforce for restaurants, schools,
community events, farmer’s markets, even the county jail.

One of the basic requirements for all food facilities is that they purchase
their consumable supplies – their feed material, if you will – from an
Approved Source.

For most food materials, such as canned goods, milled
grains, meats and dairy products, there exists a complex array of
regulatory agencies and a body of regulations that are intended to insure
an acceptable level of food safety. Cal Code says that any licensed
producer or processor who complies with those regulations and is
inspected by those agencies is deemed to be an Approved Source.

Unfortunately, there is no practical legal path for the expanded marketing
of produce by small farmers. The regulations that govern today’s
agribusiness were not developed with the unique needs of small local
farmers in mind. Local farmers simply cannot afford to comply with those
regulations. They can sell their produce at a farmer’s market, but Cal Code
prohibits them from legally being able to sell their produce to a food facility
unless they become an Approved Source.
The State of California has not enacted legislation that reasonably enables
small produce farmers to legally sell their crops to retail facilities such as
grocers, restaurants, schools, nursing homes or hospitals. We do not
suggest that the County of Mendocino do so either. Instead, we are
proposing that we follow the lead of other counties in developing a
workable, affordable Approved Source Program that is based upon Best
Management Practices, self-certification, and product traceability.

We hope to work with the produce growers of Mendocino County to
develop a set of practices that will conform with current public health
principles, a county-recognized standard of conduct that will protect public
health and enable local growers to qualify as an Approved Source. Our
goal is to find a practical and affordable way to enable Mendocino growers
to legally sell their produce to restaurants and other local food facilities.

The County Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Health
Division have engaged the local Mendocino Food Policy Council and made
them aware of the initial efforts to develop an Approved Source program
for Mendocino produce growers. We anticipate the initial draft program will
be somewhat similar to those already established in Napa and Sonoma, as
the fundamental issues of traceability, pathogen reduction, etc. are
common to addressing the Approved Source issue anywhere in California.
That said, we do not intend to blindly incorporate all the requirements
specified in those plans. This will be a plan for Mendocino County growers.
It is, however, important to note that currently both the Napa and Sonoma
County programs are cost free and allow farmers to self-certify to be an
Approved Source.

Although this program would be for Mendocino produce growers, we are
aware of potential regional opportunities as well. Mendocino County is a
member of the North Coast Regional Food System Network. Two of its five
member counties either have or very soon will have an Approved Source
program. Given the coordination offered through the North Coast Regional
Network, we anticipate possible reciprocity between the member counties,
enabling growers to expand to markets beyond county boundaries.

The three pillars of the Approved Source program will be:
1) adherence to a set of Best Management Practices,
2) Self-Certification, and
3) Product Traceability.

1. Best Management Practices
As previously stated, our program will be very similar to those of other
counties. The code of Best Management Practices will address the
following main areas:

– Worker Sanitation
– Field Management
– Post-harvest Handling

Based on basic public health principles and the work of other counties, we
anticipate that worker sanitation will include basic practices such as
washing your hands after using the toilet, the use of gloves to protect
produce from sores or open wounds, and perhaps the exclusion of workers
suffering from contagious diseases. Field management practices will likely
address items such as the timing of fertilizer application and the reduction
of crop exposure to pathogens whenever possible. Post-harvest practices
will likely address the use of clean containers and the safe storage of
harvested produce.

In all cases, the focus of the Best Management Practices will be the
reduction of food-borne pathogens in an affordable, practical manner.

2. Self-Certification
Self-certification will enable us to offer a no-cost practical program that can
operate with no additional county staffing required. Environmental Health
personnel will not inspect private farms. Each farmer will be responsible to
verify that they are complying with the conditions of this program.

3. Product Traceability
Product traceability is key to the success of the Approved Source Program.
In the event of a food illness incident, Environmental Health will be able to
quickly trace the contaminated produce back to its source. We will then
work with the grower to take immediate corrective and preventive
measures. We anticipate that we can achieve a reliable system of product
traceability through a set of simple low-cost practical steps, such as paper
invoices that are retained for a minimum length of time.

Finally, it is important to remember that this program will be completely
voluntary. It will apply only to produce farmers. It will not address meats or
dairy products. Any produce farmer whose business model involves only
direct sales to the public need not be part of this effort. This is only
intended for those who wish to legally sell their produce to commercial
food facilities.

The Department of Agriculture and Environmental Health will work with the
County’s Information Services team to develop a website that will enable
participating farmers to register from home.

The Department of Agriculture and the Division of Environmental Health
will develop the Approved Source Program in conjunction with interested
community members.

Public involvement will be solicited throughout the
development and implementation of this program with the help of the
Mendocino Food Policy Council.

Together we will host a series of stakeholder meetings to provide information
and receive feedback to guide the development of the program. We hope that
a variety of participants, including growers, grocers, restaurant owners, consumers,
and other members of the local food movement will participate in these meetings.

We will host an initial round of stakeholder meetings in early March. We will
continue to hold public meetings with a two-month interval between each
round of meetings. It is our hope that three or four rounds of public
meetings will be sufficient to craft an acceptable program that has broad
public support.

We anticipate that a program will be ready for final approval
by the end of September, 2013.

In summary, the Mendocino Agriculture Department and Environmental
Health Division are working together to develop an Approved Source
program that will protect food safety and legally open new markets for local
produce growers. We will work with local stakeholders to develop a
practical no-cost program that is based on adherence to Best Management
Practices.

Growers will be expected to self-certify that they are following
those Best Management Practices. Participation will be voluntary.
We will create an on-line registration platform. We will hold several rounds
of stakeholder meetings so that the public can have input throughout this
process. We will also closely watch the progress of similar programs that
will be implemented this summer in Napa and Sonoma counties in order to
learn from their experiences.

We would like to leave you with this quote from Brad Banner, the Director
of Environmental Health in Butte County:

“I want our organization to be viewed as a partner with the local
food movement rather than as an adversary.”

Commissioner Morse and Director Jensen wholeheartedly share that
sentiment.
February 26, 2013

February 26th, 2013|Food Policies and Politics|