Paper trail on the way

Conventional farmers should prepare for a world of paper trails and audits similar to what organic producers have to go through, says an inspection company.

Consumers increasingly want reassurance that the food they’re putting in their mouths is safe to eat. That message has been passed down to retailers and processors and will soon end up in the laps of farmers, said Greg Lore. He is the value-added services manager with SGS Canada Inc., a company specializing in inspection and verification services.

“For everything we can see as a third-party company, these changes are very near.”

Calls for food safety audits are being accelerated by genetically modified foods, the BSE outbreak, European food laws and American bioterrorism legislation.

The federal government recently announced a $62 million program to encourage the agriculture industry to adopt traceability and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, or HACCP, systems for food safety.

The program will be funded through 2008 and will provide money to projects that are nation-wide and promote the traceability of goods “from field to fork.”

SGS is exploring the idea of introducing a HACCP-based system for grain farmers, and insists it is nothing to fear.

ADVERTISMENT

“The standards might be fairly minimal depending on the risk of the commodity,” Lore said.

Details of the program still have to be hashed out but Lore estimates an initial audit would cost a farmer $600-$1,200. The frequency of follow-up audits would depend on the type of operation, but could range from random or yearly audits to one every couple of years.

Lore said a HACCP program could provide an opportunity for early adopters, who could capture price premiums for their safe foods.

But not everybody is thrilled by the prospect of another paper-based security system. Mischa Popoff is an organic inspector who blew the whistle on his own industry, saying the organic system is ripe for fraud. He has the same reservations about HACCP.

“It’s just writing down what you’re supposed to do,” he said. “I’d like to see the proof that it does protect anyone. I can’t see how it does.”

He said it’s a system based on checklists, but people can simply lie about what they’ve done. He used the analogy of lists posted in washrooms of gas stations and convenience stores indicating they have been regularly cleaned.

ADVERTISMENT

“If the manager comes through once in the day and looks at it and over the last 24 hours there’s initials of Jenny and Bob and Joe, well he will assume it has been done.”

Popoff said it’s easy to cheat paper-based verification systems and he has witnessed that as an organic inspector.

“People have lied on taxes. This isn’t anything new.”

Fraser Gilbert, general manager of SGS Agricultural Services, said cheating on a HACCP audit isn’t a trivial matter. It’s hard to fudge a soil test for instance, he said.

A side benefit of the audits is that they can help protect producers facing lawsuits based on claims of health or environmental damages.

Popoff agrees with that assessment, but he warns farmers considering implementing HACCP-based audit systems that they’re about to embark on a whole new world of tedious record keeping.

ADVERTISMENT

“It works great for McDonald’s restaurants. I just don’t see it having any place at all in a farm setting,” he said.