How Safe is Locally Grown Food?

How Safe is Locally Grown Food?

How safe is “locally grown” food? Who is responsible for the safety of locally grown food? What food safety guidelines or regulations are in place to guide food processors that sell food locally? Are local merchants or retail grocery chains liable for sourcing food that is locally grown by suppliers with inadequate systems? Those are the questions surrounding the phenomenon of “locally grown” food that litigators will seek answers to in a court of law.

It appears to me that large and small food retailers like Kroger, Safeway, Publix grocery chains may be washing their hands of legal liability by placing the burden of responsibility back on the suppliers while encouraging the growth of this industry marketing phenomenon.

In my opinion, the retail grocery and local food markets reap huge marketing benefits from locally grown promotions AND financially benefit from lower distribution costs from buying locally. As a result, I believe these retail grocerers may bear partial liability from buying from suppliers with limited food safety systems. In addition, I also believe that the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) may give suppliers and retailers a false sense of food safety security. So let’s consider some reasons why our food safety may continue to be at risk if we don’t rapidly adapt the FSMA regulatory requirements.

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1. Case Studies: Cantaloupes

In late summer 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that two people died (both in Kentucky) and 141 had fallen ill in 20 states in a salmonella outbreak linked to contaminated cantaloupe grown in southwestern Indiana. Thirty-one victims were hospitalized. One year ago, an outbreak of listeria in cantaloupes in Colorado resulted in over 30 deaths and infected between 100 and 200 people. }

In this 2011 outbreak from Jensen Farms melons, like clockwork, the blame game began to swirl. The local auditing company was blamed; poor food safety practices were blamed, as well as processing equipment. This case has become a cornerstone in food safety annals- and justifiably so because many people died through no fault of their own.


Although large food processors don’t have perfect food safety records, they do have deeper pockets to invest in food safety systems throughout their fresh food supply chain that locally grown food suppliers in many cases do not. For example, they compete in the open marketplace for the best-trained food safety experts to run their quality assurance and food safety departments. Second, they invest in training their food safety employees by sending them to industry training seminars where they stay abreast of new technologies and detection systems. Third, they invest in electronic tracking and tracing systems that allow them to find problems in minutes and not days during a food recall.

But having said this, many food companies still lack industry-tested, real-time food safety tracking and tracing systems. And fourth, a few major food companies have a false sense of security in forming independent outside food safety steering committees that oversea and provide guidance to CEOs. For example, two of these committees seem loaded with college food safety experts, but lack knowledgeable electronic tracking and tracing IT systems experts.


Another area of food liability is exposure to a disjointed food safety audit industry across the U.S. food safety horizon. What the public is not aware of is multiple food safety audit programs. For example, the lowest tier of food safety auditing is a vast network of independent auditing companies that are hired by customer companies to audit their suppliers against minimum food safety standards. These local audits take between 1 to 3 days to complete, and lack state and federal oversight in many cases.

Local and state municipalities also audit food safety risk areas in retail grocery stores, commissaries, food trucks, and distribution centers – but my experiences have shown me that these people have minimal training and are not well paid through cash-starved city and state budgets. A third level of supplier audits are carried out by mainly two companies, American Institute of Baking (AIB) and Siliker Labs, which audit companies at a higher level of food safety standards. Their audit credentials are many times mounted on the reception walls of food supplier’s entrances.

A fourth level of safety audits has an international scope, and is called the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) that has short listed specific audit programs approved for international trade. GFSI represents a collaboration of the world’s leading food safety experts representing a broad range of participants in the supply chain, from primary producer to retailer. Launched in May of 2000, this international initiative engaged in a benchmarking process to establish the key components necessary for good food safety standards, and the operating protocols for the delivery of third party certification.

GFSI promotes continuous improvement in food safety management systems to ensure the delivery of safe food to consumers. And a fifth program called ISO represents international standard specification requirements for a food safety management system that involves the following elements: interactive communication, system management, prerequisite programs, and HACCP principles.


In my opinion, the continued risk of locally grown food illness breakouts will continue to be high until local suppliers can assure the food companies and consumers that they have safe food systems in place. In my mind, the question is not if another outbreak will happen, but WHEN other outbreaks will happen – until the food supply chain liabilities and practices discussed here are addressed at the local level.

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances. Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

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