The farming community of Lopez Island within San Juan Island Archipelago, situated in the northwestern part of the state of Washington, has a rich and venerable agricultural history that dates back to the 1860s. Despite the challenges that the changing times have brought upon this community, 40 farms have managed to survive.
Today, the Lopezian farmers and food processors face a different kind of challenge than those overcome in the past. The recent changes in food safety regulations in the U.S. have ushered in the need for food producers to periodically generate objective evidence that their food products are not contaminated and that such food products are not being manufactured, packaged or stored in a contaminated environment. As there is no food analysis laboratory in Lopez Island, the local farmers and food processors would have had to send their samples to the mainland for analysis at a cost too prohibitive for this farming community. As they have done in the past, the island united as a community to find a viable solution.
In June 2015, after intensive discussions and planning, an agreement was reached between the Lopez Community Land Trust (LCLT) and BioMedix, a California-based biotechnology company that provides food safety testing systems to food companies and government agencies around the world, to establish a co-operative food analysis laboratory. The concept is a revolutionary departure from BioMedix’s conventional model of establishing an in-house laboratory that will be used exclusively by the company that owns it. But to the Lopezians, the idea is a new application of a time-tested island tradition of co-operation and resource sharing.
Housed in the facilities of the LCLT, the laboratory has been equipped by BioMedix with state-of-the-art rapid testing systems that could be used to perform screening tests for common foodborne pathogens and organisms that are common indicators of unsanitary food production. This community laboratory can be used by a farmer or a food processor in Lopez Island after completing three to four days of training in the use and management of the rapid testing systems. During the entire duration of testing the entire laboratory is reserved exclusively for that one farmer or processor, thus assuring confidentiality. Users cover the cost of the testing materials and pay a nominal maintenance fee for using the facilities and equipment. The testing systems are validated methods that are currently being used in USDA and FDA inspected facilities. Test results are confidentially recorded through a secure web-based laboratory information management system that is password-protected. The entire program is managed by Food Metrics, a division of BioMedix.
With this unique approach three significant hurdles are overcome: access to convenient and cost-effective food analysis services; the upfront cost of equipment and hardware needed to run the system; and the cost of running the lab and maintaining an inventory of testing materials which are most likely not to be completely used up before their expiration dates due to the lower frequency of testing that is expected of a small producer as compared to a large food company.
In August 2015, Candice Appleby, executive director of the Small Scale Food Processor Association (SSFPA) and Dr. Claver Bundac, founder and CEO of BioMedix, met to discuss establishing a similar communal food analysis for the food producers and processors on Vancouver Island. The imminent changes in Canadian food safety regulations are also expected to require a more definitive on-going food safety verification system on the part of small food producers in Canada. Judging by the initial response from the target communities, expectation is high that this shall be a reality in the very near future. Others could soon follow.
Food safety regulations remain dynamic because they need to be constantly calibrated against current public health trends and national food safety objectives. It is therefore imperative for small food producers in rural communities to have access to economically realistic pathways of compliance. Having a communal food analysis laboratory could be a practical and viable option.
Dr. R.J. (Ron) Wasik PhD, MBA, CFS, is president of RJW Consulting Canada Ltd. Contact him at [email protected]