Iowa Public Television


Potato Farmers Adapt to New Food-safety Requirements

posted on September 28, 2007

MANDAN, N.D. (AP) - As potato farmers harvest this year's crop, many in Maine and other states are being held for the first time to guidelines aimed at preventing a food-safety scare similar to the deadly E. coli outbreak in spinach last year. Besides watching the weather and keeping their equipment in good shape, many potato farmers must now also ensure that their fields have portable toilets and that their workers know the importance of washing hands, among other requirements. Federal guidelines known as Good Agricultural Practices, or GAP, are aimed at reducing the risk of food safety hazards during the production, handling and processing of fruits and vegetables. The program is voluntary unless a processor is selling food to the federal government for such purposes as school lunch programs. Until now, the guidelines have typically not been applied to potato farming since, unlike spinach and other fresh produce, potatoes are usually cooked before being eaten, thus reducing the potential for food-related illnesses. Now, many food companies are demanding that potato farmers meet the same guidelines. "Some of our big customers are saying we expect our growers and our suppliers to be GAP-compliant," said Rick Phillips, spokesman for Boise, Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Co., a potato processor that contracts with growers in Idaho, North Dakota, Washington, Oregon and the Canadian province of Manitoba. "We think it will be something pretty well expected or demanded of the major food producers." In Maine, about 75 of the state's 375 growers are GAP-certified, Maine Potato Board Executive Director Don Flannery said Wednesday. GAP-certified growers include all of those who raise potatoes for Maine's largest spud processor, McCain Foods Inc., said Flannery. Potato sales in Maine, one of the nation's leading potato producers, grew to $130 million in 2006 from $98 million the previous year. Farmers say they see the need to ensure food safety, but many are wary of too much oversight by officials who have never set foot on a farm. Having potable water for field workers to wash their hands and other requirements are great "in theory," said Monte Benz, who is harvesting 3,000 acres of potatoes, onions and other crops near Steele and is still trying to figure out how best to meet the guidelines. "But in the real world, it doesn't work that easy." An E. coli outbreak traced to bagged baby spinach last year was blamed for the deaths of three people and for sickening hundreds more. The source of the bacteria was found to be a California cattle ranch next to spinach fields. John Keeling, head of the National Potato Council, said the potato industry, which includes more than 9,000 farms across the country, hopes to work with the government to tailor the new guidelines to potatoes. Keeling said the industry is asking processors to adopt the same standards as other vegetable growers. "We don't want a situation where a farmer who grows for a couple of different processors has a different set of procedures" for each company, he said. Some farmers worry about the cost of meeting GAP guidelines, particularly for inspections, which they must pay for. In North Dakota, which has about 200 potato farms, GAP inspections are handled by the state Seed Department. Ken Bertsch, the state seed commissioner, said there is a flat fee of $50 besides charges of $75 per hour. The time needed for an audit depends on several factors, including the size of the farm and the number of facilities. "In some cases, we can do it in a total of an hour or two if the producer has only a couple of fields," Bertsch said. "In other cases it could be a day's work." Ray Hess, who farms near Ashton, Idaho, said the new rules were inevitable. "It's the new world; it's security," he said. "I think they've gone overboard on the security, but hey, what do you do? And remember, this is becoming industry-driven. Industry-driven is always more effective than laws."

Tags: agriculture food food safety news potatoes