Food safety can be a useful marketing tool, and it doesn’t have to cost a lot, according to organizers of the Ohio Produce Marketing Agreement.

The OPMA is a self-described grassroots effort that includes a network of Ohio growers who execute standards and inspections that members say are “realistic, sensible and affordable.”

The program has several levels that suit growing operations of various scopes, functions and business models, according to Lisa Schacht, president of the board of directors of the Columbus-based Ohio Produce Growers & Marketers Association, which developed the program.

“The need for that program is significant because there’s a real concern to address the issue of foodborne illness,” Schacht said.

The advantage to OPMA is it can adjust to the needs of different members, Schacht said.

“Just like the California Leafy Greens tried to push the national leafy greens, there was concern that a region wouldn’t be able to comply, and we thought we needed to have something that was a little more suitable for our area,” she said.

OPMA serves that need, she said.

“What we need now is that it could be recognized by that and pushed for a certification program for growers,” Schacht said.

The costs of larger-scale certification programs are not a problem with OPMA, Schacht said.

“They’re exceptional producers and have good quality product that could be in stores if distributors were satisfied by a certification program like the produce marketing agreement,” she said.

The agreement is still in its development stages, but it is progressing through the state legislature, Schacht said.

“Ohio didn’t have a legislative vehicle in our revised code for marketing agreements to be established,” she said.

The industry expects that it will have no problems getting the backing of state government, Schacht said.

“Once we have that in place, we can finalize the marketing agreement and hopefully see it move much quicker,” she said.

OPMA hasn’t pushed up sales, but it could be an important step for Ohio’s industry, said Bill Schuler, president and chief executive officer of the Wilder, Ky.-based Castellini Group.

“I applaud the effort of the Ohio farmers committee trying to get out front and develop their own marketing agreement, but at the end of the day, it’s got to meet standards set forth by the Food Safety and Modernization Act, which I know it will,” he said.

Tony DiNovo, president of Columbus-based wholesaler DNO Inc., said he believes strongly in the OPMA.

“We were pushing it ... because traceability is an important part of our business,” he said.

The company is trying to get smaller growers to comply, with some success, DiNovo said.

“We feel it’s taking us in the right direction,” he said.