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Farm-to-Table Liabilities

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When it comes to safeguarding fresh foods, restaurants and chefs must establish processes and practices for sourcing, handling, and even growing their own produce.

By Barney Wolf October 2014 Food Safety

Barely a week goes by without some sort of food product recall in the news.

Whether it’s a California company selling fruit potentially contaminated with listeria, or a Texas meat packer with fresh beef products that possibly contain metal shavings—two incidents that occurred in July alone—there are dozens of recalls every month.

That’s one reason the farm-to-table restaurant movement continues to grow among American chefs and consumers. The perception is strong that ingredients grown by local farms are not only fresher and better-tasting, but also safer.

Still, farm-to-table restaurant owners and chefs need to have safeguards in place for sourcing, handling, and serving various meats, produce, herbs, and other products from local farmers and even from their own gardens.

“There are huge potential liability issues,” says Jesse Richardson, associate professor and lead land-use attorney at West Virginia University College of Law. “If someone eats something and gets sick, they might sue the restaurant and the farmer, and anyone else who touched that food.”

Even if there’s no lawsuit, the public airing of a food-borne illness can cause irreparable damage to a restaurant’s reputation. Similar reactions from consumers can occur with an incorrectly labeled menu item, such as calling something organic when it’s not.

Just as it’s logical for restaurants to have liability insurance in case of a suit, Richardson says it’s crucial for farm-to-table eateries and chefs to enact practices to source good ingredients, inspect the food when it arrives, and make sure it is handled safely.

“These are smart steps to make customers comfortable,” he explains.

The best approach is to know the farmer or rancher producing the food, notes Chef Larry Forgione, who oversees the farm-to-table cooking concentration at the Culinary Institute of America’s campus in St. Helena, California.

“One of the most important relationships is between the restaurant and the farmer,” he says. “By getting to know the farmer, his farming practices, and the things that are important to him, you [may] never have a problem.”

The issue of trust is key.

“I keep going back to the words respect and responsibility,” the James Beard Award-winning chef and educator states. “When you’re dealing with farmers who are growing crops responsibly and sustainability, it shows they’re doing it the right way.”

Chef Forgione stresses to students the importance of knowing the people they are dealing with all along the food chain. He recently put that into practice when deciding on a butchery for harvesting the school’s Red Wattle pigs.

“I went over to meet them and to see what they were doing,” he says. So, even though all meat in America has to be inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture or a state agency to make sure it’s safe, the chef took an extra step, learning about the operators and, in effect, inspecting the plant and its methods himself.

Charlie Marshall, chef/owner of The Marshal in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, agrees that getting to know the farmer is paramount for safe sourcing.

“I think local farms are safer to begin with,” he says. “It’s the attention all these items get from the farmers and the way they’re producing them. If you have a good ecosystem at your farm, you’re better able to avoid the diseases” that can infect produce and animals.

Standing testament to this philosophy, The Marshal’s menus feature a map showing the locations of its purveyors.

Chef Marshall grew up on a farm, so he knows when an ingredient is good and fresh, and how to ask the right kind of questions when talking to farmers.

“I have an eye for the way things should be, and so I investigate [the farm] myself,” he says. “So, if it looks safe and clean, that’s a good sign. You also have to talk with the person providing the food, and ask how long ago it was picked or if it was refrigerated.”

Additionally, he buys ingredients from farmers’ markets set up by GrowNYC, a non-profit organization that helps connect consumers with fresh farm products. The GrowNYC markets only permit items from farms that the program has audited.

“The system is reliant on the traceability of products,” Chef Marshall explains. “Without that, you can [slip] from farm-to-table to fake-to-table very easily.”

Forging personal relationships with farmers makes it easier for chefs to obtain consistent, high-quality ingredients, explains Eric Patterson, co-owner and co-chef at The Cooks’ House, a Traverse City, Michigan, restaurant focusing on local, sustainable food.

“We have about 80 we work with, and I know them,” he says. “The vast majority of our food is directly sourced, and during the summer we get about 98 percent from in or around the state.”

When The Cooks’ House opened about seven years ago, few restaurants in that area purchased locally grown food to the degree Patterson planned to do. He found the names of local farmers in a booklet prepared by the Michigan Land Use Institute.

“From that, we hunted down our opening list of six to eight farmers,” he says. “As our reputation grew, it became easier for us to find farmers. A lot of farmers now come to us, and some ask us what we want them to grow for us.”

He says the small farms that supply him wouldn’t have the luxury of recovering from a recall. “Our guys may have 30 pigs, and a problem would wipe out their reputations and their farms. These guys have to be very careful.”

At the same time, Patterson has had to stop doing business with farmers who didn’t meet his standards.

“Food safety is one of the biggest issues to address in the local movement,” he says. “If we want to keep this thing going, the last thing we need is to have something like a food-borne illness. That would definitely be a step backward.”

Small farms are less likely to cause major outbreaks of microbial illness because their products don’t get to as many people as big farms, notes Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University.

“But animal waste can contaminate the best-run farms,” she explains, adding that’s one reason rules established by the Food Safety Modernization Act—signed into law in 2011—are needed. The act requires all food producers to follow food-safety procedures.

“To the extent that farms design and implement those procedures thoughtfully and diligently, they will produce safer foods and avoid causing outbreaks,” she adds.

Small farming operations are also likely to have less risk for farm-to-table restaurants because there’s a shorter food chain, says Marisa Bunning, food safety specialist and associate professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado.

“The food chain is where there are multiple opportunities for contamination,” she states. “If you shorten the time and shorten the chain, that’s a good thing.”

Still, food safety issues are “equal-opportunity” troublemakers, and restaurants need to be sure farms use best practices.

Nestle and Bunning say farm-to-table restaurants can reduce their liability exposure by taking simple steps to clean, separate, cook, and chill: cleaning food, particularly produce, and surfaces carefully; separating food to help prevent cross contamination; cooking to the right temperature; and refrigerating immediately.

Culinary students at Johnson & Wales University are taught to treat each ingredient as if it could be potentially contaminated, says Chris Wagner, director of culinary operations at the school’s Miami campus.

“You need to wash and rewash items,” he says. “You need to look at the people who work at the farm or farm stand. Look at the trucks that make the deliveries. Are there bugs on it? If the truck is dirty inside or smells, that tells you something, too.”

The food-identification class teaches chefs-to-be what is fresh and what is below par. Students typically are required to inspect all the food that arrives at the university.

“They do most of the digging through the produce when it arrives at the back door,” Wagner says. “You check temperatures of the meat. With fish, you look at the gills and the eyes. You learn quality control.”

Simple washing of food can prevent a variety of potential contaminants. “What is the farmer fertilizing with?” he asks. “Is it fresh manure? If so, has it been heat-treated to kill the pathogens? Many small farms don’t have the means to do that.”

At The Cooks’ House, Chef Patterson agrees that washing is paramount in the farm-to-table movement, especially with produce from small farms.

“It often has sand, turf, and even bugs, which is a normal part of growing,” he notes. “The onus is on the restaurants to make sure it is clean.”

Kevin Naderi, who opened the eclectic Roost restaurant in Houston three years ago, says he and his staff “pick through everything” to make sure they are receiving clean, quality product.

“Seventy percent of the menu is local,” including venison, quail, and microgreens, he says. “Most of the fish is from the Gulf. Mainly we’re just trusting the farmer, but we do need to be constantly on watch.”

In his career as a chef, he has had to remove farmers as suppliers, such as when one provider sold chickens that it had not raised. “Other times, there are farmers good at what they do, but you find lots of [pests] because the farmer didn’t go through it,” Chef Naderi says.

He recommends always having a backup supplier, not just because of concerns about one farm’s safety practices, but also to make sure a chef can get the amount of product needed. Chef Naderi does exactly this with the main ingredient of one popular dish, fried cauliflower.

Sourcing organic items may provide a bit more protection, because they use mostly naturally occurring pesticides and fertilizer.

“The positive aspect of organic for food safety is the elimination of pesticides and residue,” says Chris Hunt, food program director of the Grace Communications Foundation, a New York-based non-profit organization that focuses on food, water, and energy.

The USDA certifies the organic moniker, and there are now more than 18,000 American farms and businesses that have received certification.

“The organic standards basically [mean] anything natural is allowed unless it is specifically not allowed, and only certain synthetics are permitted,” says USDA spokesman Samuel Jones-Ellard. “Arsenic is a naturally occurring substance, but that’s certainly not what you would want in food. And baking soda is not natural, but it is approved.”

Restaurants that falsely claim to be organic face the wrath of consumers, Hunt notes. “Many restaurants, like farmers, operate on thin margins, and all it takes is a scandal—like serving normal ground beef but saying it’s grass-fed organic—to ruin the business.”

Still, chefs shouldn’t avoid small farmers that don’t have the organic certification. Chef Marshall says some of his farmers aren’t organic “not because they are using pesticides, but because of the cost. There’s a steep fine system, and these small farmers can’t deal with it.”

He contends the ingredients he gets at farmers’ markets are better than organic.

While the USDA regulates meat, poultry, and eggs, and the Food and Drug Administration oversees food-safety for produce, fruit, cheese, and other foods, the oversight of farmers’ markets is generally a local or state issue.

In Ohio, for instance, farmers’ markets vary. “There are some markets that allow vendors to resell items, but also the complete opposite where the owners are required to only bring items grown on their farms,” says Lindsey Hoover, coordinator of the Fruit and Vegetable Safety Program at The Ohio State University’s Agricultural Research and Development Center.

Some markets put food-safety guidelines in place, while others have less stringent oversight, she adds. “So, talk to the market manager and see what they’re expecting of their vendors. And talking to the vendors is best.”

Ingredients sourced by foraging also require close attention. There have been instances when diners became ill because they were served items like poisonous wild mushrooms.

Alan Muskat, who provides wild gourmet specialty foods to dozens of chefs in his native Asheville, North Carolina, and beyond, says that foraging is an art learned best from others, not by reading a book.

“I did it the dumb way,” he says. “I learned on my own.” Now he teaches how to wild-harvest, including foraging for many products that are fragile and perishable. There are no federal standards for selling wild mushrooms, and few states have rules either.

Muskat sends chefs weekly information about the items that are available, including his Catch of the Week. He notes ramps are particularly popular, followed by morels and other wild mushrooms.

Chefs and restaurants that grow their own herbs and produce are not immune from possible liability issues, says Colorado State’s Bunning. Knowing what’s in the soil and water is critical, as is being aware of other potential contaminants like pesticides, fertilizers, and hazardous runoff from another business or a compost bin.

“Using something like railroad ties for raised beds could be an issue,” she notes, because some toxic wood stains can leach into the soil.

Overall, farm-to-table restaurants can best prevent potential liability problems by just using good sense and smart practices.

“For me, find a great farm and have a great relationship with the farmer,” Johnson & Wales’ Wagner says. “Look for the shortest distance to deliver the food and the fewest hands handling it. Cook everything to temperature, and remember you cannot wash the food enough. The simplest things have the biggest outcomes.”