Field School session #8: Food Processing and Safety

By Shae Keane

On June 16th, the Field School’s beginning farmers gathered yet again for a workshop that some commented was the most valuable of all workshops thus far: Farm-to-Consumer Food Safety. Thanks to two dynamic speakers, this workshop was an fascinating and relevant coverage of food handling for safety and freshness, food safety law, proper labeling and packaging, and important information for small family farmers related to the impending Food Safety Modernization Act.

This workshop began with a presentation from Ashley Cavender, Local Food Manager at Boone Street Market. This also gave Field School farmers a chance to meet the person who has been carefully preparing the delicious, nourishing Boone Street meals that have been provided at multiple workshops, including the vegetarian chicken salad sandwiches, fresh veggie salad, and strawberry crumble that the participants enjoyed at this workshop. [Her presentation is here: Farm to Consumer BSM]

Ashley was the ETSU farmers market manager before working at Boone Street, so she is is well-versed in the complexity of maintaining a thriving local food system. She shed light on the marketing side of selling locally— food safety requirements, product branding and labeling, and organization in records and food preparation when selling to market— such as cleaning, wrapping as needed, and having produce itemized upon delivery. She also suggested communicating farm values and practice to patrons on packaging or by some other means, telling us that farmers could not imagine how many times she is asked by Boone Street customers, “Is this conventional?” or “Is this chemical-free?” Towards the end of her presentation, she highlighted that “Relationships are everything.”

Following Ashley, Mike Brown, Food Safety & Outreach Coordinator for the TN Dept. of Agriculture, gave an in-depth and thorough presentation on what seemed like just about everything under the sun related to regulations around manufacturing, processing, and marketing foods. [His presentation is here: Farmer’s Market Regulatory Roadmap- MBrown TDA]

Brown began by explaining that there is no Tennessee entity that offers food-related inspections, so all of these depend on the USDA’s inspection services. He covered GMP— Good Manufacturing Processes, especially around meats, which eventually led into a discussion on product labeling, especially in regards to proper food allergy labeling. He listed the “Big 8” allergens that should be carefully marked on packaging if the product contains or could possibly contain any of these: wheat, soy, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, or tree nuts.

Brown pointed out that, if it is a home kitchen that is not certified, products can still be legally sold direct to consumer, but it is a requirement that the product be labeled with the following: “These food products were made in a private home not licensed or inspected.”  If value-added products are sold in Tennessee, no matter where they were made, they must comply with Tennessee laws.

Brown then touched briefly on the topic of pickling and “Manufacturing Acidified Foods in Tennessee.” This soon led into the topic of in-home food processing. He spoke on the process of having a home kitchen certified by the USDA, but emphasized that a home is unable to be certified if they have pets of any kind in the home. To be certified, a home must also have a separate refrigerator with which to store the ingredients that will be used to process the final commercial product. He pointed out that, if it is a home kitchen that is not certified, it is a requirement that the product be labeled with the following: “These food products were made in a private home not licensed or inspected,” in at least a .75 inch font. Some participants pointed out other similar notices that they had seen listed on commercial food products sold on a small-scale, such as “This product was not made for human consumption.”

To close out our workshop for the night, Camille Cody from Serenity Knoll Farm, who is herself a participant in the Field School, spoke about the farm she manages and, in particular, the process of becoming “Certified Naturally Grown,” or CNG. For many farmers, especially those who may have difficulty affording the USDA’s Organic certification, this provides an alternative that is more affordable, yet still legitimate and respected. Camille spoke of CNG as a farmer peer-to-peer system, in which each CNG farmer commits to one farm visit a year to another farmer’s farm to evaluate and review their processes, ensuring that they are indeed meeting the standards.

In closing, Dana York reminded participants that the Field School graduation and farm plan presentation is soon approaching. This final day will be held at Dana’s farm in August, in celebration of the journey of growth that the Field School has been and in anticipation of all the new farm dreams and plans yet to come.