NSAC's Blog

Clear and consistent food safety standards could benefit people and the environment

October 6, 2016

Photo credit: Lindsey Scalera.

Photo credit: Lindsey Scalera.

Editor’s Note: This article is a guest blog by the following researchers from the University of California Berkeley and The Nature Conservancy: Patrick Baur, PhD Candidate, Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California at Berkeley; Laura Driscoll, PhD Candidate, Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California at Berkeley; Sasha Gennet, Senior Scientist, The Nature Conservancy.

Food safety pressures

After a major outbreak of E. coli in spinach in 2006, pressure ramped up dramatically from consumers, retailers, and regulators to ensure that the fresh produce on grocery store shelves was free of dangerous pathogens. Within a year of the outbreak, the leafy greens industry drafted standards for farmers to follow using the best information available at the time; state officials in California and Arizona verified farmers’ compliance with the standards. At the same time, some influential wholesale and retail buyers began requiring their growers to go above and beyond the industry standards, adopting proprietary practices that had not necessarily been shown to enhance food safety.

In 2015, federal regulations from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were issued under the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). These rules set minimum standards for growing and harvesting produce that apply to farmers and food processors across the nation. While the FSMA rules are meant to standardize food safety practices throughout the agricultural industry, many consumers and retailers still consider the federal regulations to be the de minimus standard.

Growers across the nation feel pressure from their buyers to pay for a third-party audit and receive additional, proprietary food safety certifications. This patchwork of regulations and proprietary standards is complex for growers to navigate, and expensive to implement. In many cases, growers are pressured into implementing third party food safety standards that are not only expensive and environmentally damaging, but also have no proven track record of reducing risk.

In 2014, research teams from UC Berkeley and The Nature Conservancy surveyed produce growers across California to learn how farmers manage their land to minimize the risks of foodborne illness, while protecting nature and environmental quality. The survey findings were recently published in the open-access journal, California Agriculture. The article, “Inconsistent food safety pressures complicate environmental conservation for California produce growers, finds that food safety rules and standards may be applied inconsistently and in ways that are not keeping up with the most current science and data. We believe that government inspectors and third-party auditors have an important opportunity to assist farmers in this respect. Inspectors and auditors can help improve the food safety landscape by sending a more consistent message to farmers that sustainability and food safety should not be in conflict, but go hand-in-hand.

What we asked

Our survey asked farmers about how they are responding to increased food safety-related pressures. Which specific food safety practices do they feel they must adopt? Where are they getting information? Who is interpreting the latest rules and asking farmers to implement specific practices? Are these practices compatible with other goals farmers have for their land, such as environmental stewardship?

What we heard

There were two major findings. First, many farmers reported using wildlife-deterrent practices to address food safety concerns. Practices included removing natural vegetation around fields, trapping and poisoning wildlife, and building fences to keep wildlife out of fields. Many growers also recognized, however, that such practices are not only expensive, they often also conflict with conservation goals.

The survey also revealed that on-farm food safety practices varied enormously among farms across California. Although no two farms are exactly alike, and food safety practices might be expected to vary somewhat as a result, we anticipated that similar farms would be implementing similar suites of practices. Our findings indicate that, instead, similar farms may implement rather different suites of practices, suggesting that interpretation of the rules and guidance is not consistent.

Tensions between food safety and environmental conservation

Research done since the 2006 E. coli outbreak has shown that many of the wildlife-deterrent practices intended to improve food safety on farms have in fact had negative consequences on the environment and on farmers. For example, these practices can destroy wildlife habitat and impact soil and water quality by increasing erosion, sedimentation and runoff of chemicals. New studies also show that these practices can also harm growers by reducing benefits from natural ecosystems, such as pest control services provided by beneficial insects.

Does improving food safety have to mean decreasing environmental quality and foregoing sustainable farming techniques? The driving assumption has been that this is a necessary tradeoff, but recent research findings suggest otherwise. For example, there is no clear evidence that removing vegetation to deter wildlife from entering farm fields actually lowers the risk of crop contamination. In fact, the recent research has shown that in some cases the reverse is true.

Consistency matters

Our research and interviews with farmers revealed problematic inconsistencies in the way food safety is addressed on farms, beyond what would be expected due to normal farm-to-farm variation. Most farmers reported that their food safety auditors are inconsistent in their expectations, and most also did not feel that receiving a third-party food safety certification made their products any safer. This inconsistency is worrisome. First, it increases uncertainty for farmers. This uncertainty may push growers to implement more severe (and potentially more environmentally damaging) practices as precautionary measures, even if existing rules and standards do not explicitly require those practices. Second, inconsistency in how food safety requirements are presented to farmers may lead to frustration and skepticism in the process and its results. Farmers are the ones doing their best to reliably grow healthy, safe food for consumers, and their buy-in is critical to the success of any food safety program. Lastly, inconsistency makes it harder for regulators and the consuming public to know whether the rules and standards put in place to reduce the risk of foodborne illness are actually effective.

A way forward for safe food, sustainable farms, and a healthy environment

The impacts of food safety practices on farm sustainability, consumers, and environmental quality depend upon the specifics of the rules as well as on how they are interpreted and enforced. Our survey results indicate that a lag exists between current science and implementation, and reveals an opportunity to make the standards more predictable and consistent for growers.

Current research, including our own, suggests that compatibility between nature conservation, farm sustainability, and food safety is possible. For example, natural vegetation and wildlife habitat, which were earlier assumed to be associated with pathogen contamination, have recently been shown to be neutral or beneficial for food safety, and provide pest control services and water quality benefits. We strongly encourage collaboration and communication between researchers, growers, and industry leadership – including auditors, buyers, and trade groups – to further refine and clearly define suites of practices that provide multiple benefits on farms. Improving consistency and promoting food safety efficiently and sustainably would benefit farmers, consumers, and the environment.

Additional resources:

Categories: General Interest

One response to “Clear and consistent food safety standards could benefit people and the environment”

  1. […] wrote a guest blog post along with several colleagues for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition summarizing the […]