MORGANTOWN, W. Va. – West Virginia leads the nation in the number of small farmers, and a team of researchers at West Virginia University hopes to help them increase the safety of the local foods sold to communities.
The WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design and WVU Extension Service Small Farm Center are partnering to develop a three-step wash process to help mitigate food safety risks associated with locally grown fresh produce in the state.
Oftentimes, produce purchased from farmers’ markets is perceived as being safer than products bought from conventional stores.
However, Cangliang Shen, lead researcher on the project and assistant professor of human nutrition and foods, notes that under Food and Drug Administration exemptions, certain small growers are not required to conduct sample tests for pathogens on their products.
“Although the FDA allots exemptions to certain small growers, that doesn’t mean they are exempt from providing safe food to their communities,” he said.
Prior research conducted by the team found higher percentages of Salmonella and Listeria spp., bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses, on fresh produce sold at West Virginia farmers markets as compared to existing published data.
Lisa Jones, program coordinator for the Small Farm Center, stressed that the percentages weren’t high enough to cause an outbreak; however, there is always room for improvement with respect to food safety.
“Our mission is two-fold,” Jones said. “Help small growers provide safe produce to consumers and protect their businesses.”
To test the three-step wash process, the team is partnering with Preston County Workshop, Inc., a non-profit, integrated rehabilitation facility featuring a farm and greenhouse, to implement the system and evaluate its viability for small farmers.
“The Workshop can wash, grade and pack locally grown food from area farmers,” Shen said. “This ability has elevated the facility into a nutrient for growth, development and maintenance of the region’s agriculture. This project will supply the organization with scientific information regarding the efficacy of the three-step wash to inactivate foodborne pathogens during their processing line.”
Shen went on to say partnering with a local organization will allow the team to conduct an economic analysis to assess changes in consumer and farmer behaviors with respect to agricultural food safety.
And, that’s where Xaioli Etienne, associate professor of resource economics and management, steps into the picture.
To successfully adopt the three-step wash process, it must be a worthwhile investment for farmers and consumers.
“With the entire process in place, we must also evaluate whether consumers are willing to pay more for safer produce. After all, farmers need to pay for the equipment and labor used in this new cleaning method,” she explained. “In particular, we will study how much extra consumers are willing to pay for safer produce, and whether this increased price can cover the extra cost incurred to farmers.”