Safe, not sorry

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Food poisoning is not something you wish on anyone. It’s horrible, miserable and downright deadly. If you’ve ever had an E. coli or Salmonella infection, then you probably take food safety seriously. I know I do. Outbreaks of E. coli have plagued the field-grown leafy greens industry for the past three years in a row, with the most recent outbreaks sending romaine lettuce to the garbage bins across the country. With each recall, consumers are forced to focus more closely on where and how their food is grown.

With animal feces and surface water contamination for field-grown produce at the center of most of the leafy greens recalls, some food companies and restaurants are making shifts to buy from hydroponic and CEA producers. While this is a great opportunity for those of you growing under glass or in controlled environments, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you won’t come under the same safety and transparency scrutiny, or liability.

There are certainly many reasons why agriculture is making a big move indoors. It can be argued that CEA offers more local and sustainable food production, and that it requires less water than field growing and doesn’t impact topsoil or lead to erosion. Controlled growing may also create conditions where fewer, or no, pesticides or herbicides are used. And when you’re growing local, with potentially less pest pressure, you can grow edible varieties that offer up better flavor and nutritional value, versus having to grow varieties or use harvesting methods that cater to shipability.

While there may be a perception that the boundaries created by greenhouses or controlled environments mean safer produce, we all know that there are still plenty of ways contamination can happen. Growing in a controlled environment means you lose the benefits of nature’s sanitizers: air and sunlight. Close monitoring of all environmental conditions is a must in hydroponics and controlled environments. Anywhere there is water involved, pathogens can spread. And of course, any time you have people involved in your production process, there’s ample opportunity for all sorts of contamination.

With venture capitalists jumping into the CEA game, and new operations launching left and right, we can also argue that this is a very young industry with a lot of learning and growing to do. Mistakes are bound to happen. Many CEA growers may not even have a good understanding of what translates to safe, or not safe, growing or processing procedures. Technology is changing rapidly, influencing a variety of production techniques utilized differently by different growers. You do have much better opportunities for authentic transparency and traceability as a CEA, but collective standard protocols aren’t yet where we need them to be.

This is a very young industry with a lot of learning and growing to do.

Enter, the CEA Food Safety Coalition (FSC). This new independent and member-governed organization debuted in 2018 and just recently announced the appointment of its first executive director. The goal of the organization is to bring together CEA growers of leafy greens to self-submit to external audits of their production processes. Then, thorough evaluation to develop appropriate food safety standards and consumer education.

If you grow leafy greens using any sort of controlled environment, be it hydroponics, aeroponics or aquaponics, and you’re willing to submit to a third-party food safety audit, then you are welcome to join the CEA FSC.

If you grow produce, do you have a Farm Food Safety Plan (FFSP) in place? If not, it’s time to get your house in order. You need to make sure you’re keeping a detailed record of your operation’s procedures and adherence to growing and processing safe greens or other produce. I suspect the CEA FSC will be working with members to develop FFSPs that help them fine-tune their safety measures and comply with federal regulations.

Good news if you’ll be attending the United Fresh 2020 Convention & Expo, because they’ve just partnered with the CEA FSC to create a new Controlled Environmental Pavilion at the show. The Pavilion will showcase thought leaders and foster discussions between experienced and new growers, as well as highlight new technologies and food safety issues. If you’re a CEA or service provider, you can now book booths both inside and adjacent to the Pavilion.

No one likes getting food poisoning, and we already throw away far too much food in this country. Growing as a CEA offers up the ability to not only limit waste of resources, but also produce safer and contamination-free food. Consumers are willing to pay you a bit more for your produce when you can be totally transparent about your methods and food safety concerns. But it’s going to take a lot more research, learning, communication and community standards before CEAs can truly take the lead on produce safety.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies.

February 2020
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