They must pay a higher percentage of their sales than big farms to do it, but small produce growers eventually end up with more money in their pockets if they implement food safety practices.

The big produce operations can’t always meet commodity demands, making regional buys a key part of the supply chain for retailers such as Walmart or Aldi. Local, regional and independent restaurants and grocers are also increasingly requiring that their suppliers have proof of food safety practices.

“A new Cornell study finds that when small-scale farmers are trained in food safety protocols and develop a farm food safety plan, new markets open up to them, leading to an overall gain in revenue,” according to Cornell researchers who just published study results in the Journal PLOS ONE.

Lead author on the research study, “Assessing the Costs and Returns of On-farm Food Safety Improvements: A Survey of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) Training Participants,” Todd Schmit, said scientists found that, consistent with the literature, the relative cost burden is higher for smaller-scale producers, but they also have more relative benefits of increasing sales to new markets and buyers.  

One fact the research revealed is that greater understanding among growers about food safety investments can reduce microbial risks and increase sales, said Schmit.

A tool to help increase growers’ understanding is increasing familiarity with, and application of, Good Agricultural Practices, known as GAPs, said Elizabeth Bihn. And, she agrees with Schmit’s conclusions about the financial benefits to on-farm food safety.

Bihn is a co-author on the research report and director of the Cornell-based National GAPs Program and the Produce Safety Alliance, a collaborative project between Cornell, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“It is important to note that markets drove food safety requirements before FSMA (the Food Safety Modernization Act),” Bihn said, “and will likely continue to drive markets given that FSMA exempts or excludes certain farms.“It’s great to know that by investing in food safety, you are actually getting a market benefit.”

Enforcement of the FSMA, which was signed into law Jan. 4, 2011, has begun on a rolling basis based on the size of farms. Certain — with average annual food sales of $500,000 or less and farms that grow certain types of produce —  can qualify for an exemption. This makes continued GAPs training, audits and certification necessary for smaller producers, according to the Cornell researchers.

Co-authors on the study include Gretchen Wall, a coordinator and Northeast regional extension associate at the Produce Safety Alliance, and Elizabeth Newbold, center administrator for the Northeast Center to Advance Food Safety.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety Website, click here.)