One doesn’t have to come at the expense of the other, experts say

May 25, 2010

By Scott Christie
Managing Editor

Agriculture is a naturally sustainable industry, but growers in California are finding it harder to be sustainable in light of food safety guidelines. But the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California, Davis, is working with stakeholders to provide research on the interaction between the environment and food safety.

There is evidence that food safety requirements are damaging sustainability efforts, according to a California study. The Resource Conservation District of Monterey County released “Challenges to Co-Management of Food Safety and Environmental Protection: 

A Grower Survey” this summer, which was compiled from 178 growers. The study found growers using the leafy greens metrics and food safety requirements from national or international buyers were most likely to run into obstacles managing the environment and food safety.

More than half of the leafy greens growers that responded to the survey adhered to more than one set of food safety guidelines, and were more likely to have been told by auditors or inspectors that wildlife was a food safety risk. They were also more likely than other crops to have been told that non-crop vegetation was a risk to food safety. The same was true for bodies of water near leafy greens crops, according to the study.

A Grower’s Perspective

Mark Teixeira is the general manager for his family’s business, Teixeira Farms, in Santa Maria, Calif. He’s one of only two of the fifth generation to stay in the family business, which he blames on the current business climate. Teixeira said he feels like the food safety requirements coming from buyers are more to protect the brands from legal actions than they are to protect consumers eating the product.

Teixeira Farms follows Good Agricultural Practices, is audited by PrimusLabs, has Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures and has field audits and pesticide residue analyses, but that’s still not enough for some buyers. He’s had customers demand the removal of wetlands near a field, and one suggested putting up a “frog fence” to prevent frogs from a nearby pond from getting in the fields. Teixeira said in all his years of farming, he’s never heard of such a thing.

It’s very difficult to keep all animals off of a farm, he said. Deer are a big concern right now, and Teixeira Farms has had to fence in more than 13 miles of farmland – at a cost of $10 a foot to keep them out, Teixeira said. But the area surrounding the farmland still is prime habitat for deer, so they’ll always try to cross through the fields. Even if he could keep the deer out, he can’t make the area a “no-fly zone” for birds. He’s also responsible for water quality upstream of the farm, he said. Homeowners can use commercial versions of the same fertilizers that he has to be registered to use, so even if there’s no runoff from the farm, there still are detectable levels because no one’s testing water where it comes into the farm.

“Everybody’s focus is on the farm. What about what’s upstream?” he said.

These extra requirements aren’t the result of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement metrics; they’re brought on by buyers making good guidelines even more stringent, Teixeira said. There’s the feeling among some customers that if a 75-foot buffer is good, then 150 feet must be better, he said. The metrics were created with the best science available and it doesn’t provide any more food safety when “super metrics” are required. Even audits from third parties aren’t based on good science and sometimes lack an understanding of food safety in the fields

One auditor on Teixeira’s farm saw rodent holes in an unused drainage ditch that wasn’t adjacent to a field, but he made the farm plug the holes then monitor them for 24 hours to see if they were active. That was all in addition to already having traps and other measures near the crops, as warranted by the leafy greens metrics.

“How do you meet the demands of people who don’t have an idea of what’s going on? They’re just marking off forms,” Teixeira said.

It’s mostly the “super metrics” that have caused the environmental initiatives to go backward, not farmers going overboard, he said. In some cases, Teixeira Farms has told customers that they can’t meet their demands.

“At some point, you have to draw the line. And if you say, ‘No, I won’t do that,’ they won’t buy from you,” Teixeira said. 

A clear set of guidelines that provides for flexibility is where Teixeira would like to see the industry go. A national leafy greens program would also level the playing field 

“I think what is important is we use science and science only – get away from all this hype,” he said. 

A Buyer Perspective

The leafy greens metrics were really a reactive effort to address the food safety issues in fresh and fresh-cut leafy green products, said Tim York, president of Salinas-based Markon Cooperative. York supports the industry initiative to have standards that are science-based and are specific, measurable and verifiable. Additional steps shouldn’t be required because the leafy greens metrics are based on the best available science.

But at some point the environment does have to enter into the discussion, and York said the industry is working toward incorporating best practices, but growers don’t want conflicting rules. Environmental initiatives should be introduced when the science is sound and when they can be achieved without compromising food safety, he said. 

“It’s a balance,” said Mark Burness, vice president of global quality and food safety for Chiquita. “One can’t be taken to the advantage of the other.”

Burness said the discussion around food safety and the environment has to be about risk. How rules are applied might be different on each farm, because a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t fit all, and shouldn’t try to. 

Chiquita has a long history of bringing sustainability into its business practices with its banana production in South America. The company doesn’t have environmental standards for growers in the United States right now, but the company does work with growers and researchers to find a balance. For example, the company looks for practical ways to reduce fertilizer use, including using some buffer crops that reduce the level of nitrates entering nearby water. That’s where common sense comes in, he said, because removing buffer crops to discourage animals can have a negative effect on water sources. 

Both York and Burness are working with the Center for Produce Safety to bring stakeholders to the table to work toward sustainable, safe food. The center is bringing together stakeholders from the growing side, research, buyers and even environmental non-government organizations to guide the scientific research.

The Environmental Perspective

“Food safety can’t be compromised,” said Eric Holst, managing director for the Center for Conservation Incentives, part of the Environmental Defense Fund in Sacramento. “But I want the growers to deliver safe food, not a sense for lawyers that food is safer.”

He wants more than the illusion of safe food, he said, and one standard that isn’t proscriptive is needed to get to a point where food is safer without being unsustainable. 

Holst represents one of the NGOs working with the Center for Produce Safety to provide an environmental perspective to the food safety discussion. Not all environmental groups recognize the priority for food safety, Holst said with two kids at home he knows that having safe, healthful foods will always be more important. Since 2006, his NGO has heard reports that growers were removing wildlife practices because of food safety guidelines.

National retailers and foodservice brands need to be part of the discussion, so that they understand what the food safety requirements are and don’t supersede them with unnecessary guidelines, Holst said. He also said auditors should be included in the dialog so they can be prepared and provide for more flexibility on the farm.

Any standard that comes out of the research has to have some meat behind it, Holst said. The “super metrics” are driven by lawyers to defend a brand, but a science-based approach could help strike a balance between the environment and food safety.

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