As Americans, we like to root for the underdog.

Politicians have tapped into that essence in this election season, lowering debate expectations, running as outsiders whenever possible.

Local suppliers can't treat produce as a hobbyEven Yankee fans began to turn on their team in the playoffs, perhaps seeing what the rest of the nation sees: rich, spoiled mercenaries against the upstart Orioles and then Tigers.

I’ve always thought an unspoken appeal of local food has been supporting the underdog.

Sure, we like to think we’re helping the environment when we buy local, but only a small fraction of the energy spent getting fresh fruits and vegetables into our homes is in transportation.

We like the concept of the small grower.

When the Food Safety Modernization Act passed Congress in late 2010, there wasn’t much consumer fuss about the so-called Tester Amendment, which exempted small farms (those with annual sales under $500,000) from some food safety requirements.

The little guys need help against the bigger guys, after all.

But lately, I can’t help but feel like the little guy is letting us all down.

While we see reports seemingly every week about produce recalls from established national companies, they’re usually accompanied by the phrase “no illnesses have been reported,” meaning the food safety system is working pretty well and potentially tainted product is being removed.

But the past two years, many of the outbreaks with illnesses and deaths have been from small farms.

Last summer we had Colorado’s Jensen Farms with cantaloupes and organic sprouts from a small farm in Germany leading to deaths. This year, a local Indiana cantaloupe outbreak caused illnesses and deaths.

No company wants to get involved in a food safety outbreak.

But some do a better job of staying out of them or quickly containing them.

As my father used to tell us kids when we’d have a careless accident and explain that we didn’t mean to, he’d always respond, “You didn’t mean NOT to.”

Chamberlain Farms outbreak

Not to pick on Chamberlain Farms of Owensville, Ind., but the most recent outbreak in the produce industry could have been avoided.

After last summer’s deadly outbreak from Colorado, cantaloupe industry leaders organized a January meeting and they later settled on cantaloupe-specific good agricultural practices.

They were non-binding, and clearly Chamberlain Farms did not follow them.

Indiana Health Department officials reported “alarming findings” in an October report on the farm. Among the violations were standing water in the shed and on equipment; porous wood and carpet on food-contact surfaces; leaking water valves and pipes; and no testing or records of monitoring chlorine in the wash water.

In addition, there was no traceability in place, which violates the 2002 bioterrorism act, mandating one-up, one-down food traceability.

The Food and Drug Administration also found those conditions in mid-August and found the strain of salmonella from Chamberlain’s fields that was in the outbreak.

Nonetheless, owner Tim Chamberlain said in a written statement issued via his attorney in early October, “While we acknowledge that the FDA report notes certain conditions allegedly observed at Chamberlain Farms, there is nothing in the report to indicate the conditions are a source of or contributed to any reported illnesses.”

The whole incident is tragic in that some consumers died as the result of eating cantaloupe, but it’s also one that does not speak highly of locally grown.

Retail response

Local sourcing is not going away. There are too many winners, and consumers demand it.

Regardless of the FSMA’s weaker food safety requirements for small growers, retailers need to have the same standards for suppliers regardless of size.

At The Packer’s Midwest Expo in Chicago in August, I moderated a panel on local Midwest sourcing.

Panelist Ed Osowski, director of produce and floral for Martin’s Super Markets, South Bend, Ind., said his chain has a list of food safety expectations for small growers that supply just one or two stores.

But he said the follow-up and on-farm verification for those small growers is not as stringent as it is for large commercial producers.

This is not uncommon.

In-house food safety testing is conducted on produce from large and small farms, Osowski said.

Retail buyers need to remember their brand is on the line with every fruit or vegetable a consumer takes home. Consumers rarely distinguish produce brands, but they certainly know the banner of the store they shop.

Retail chains should have zero tolerance for underdog local suppliers who can’t prove their food safety standards are as tough as the big players.

Growing and selling fresh produce is serious business. It’s not a hobby.

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.