Produce Grower: What are some mistakes CEA operations can make that leave them at risk for a food safety issue?
Sanja Ilic: There are sometimes controlled environment growers that operate under the assumption that a controlled environment always offers a lesser risk for contamination. But the conditions that make a controlled environment more sustainable and better for growth of produce also make it more conducive for proliferation of bacteria. Just because produce is not known in the field, does not mean that there is no risk of contamination with pathogens. We have seen in the past from previous studies that contamination can be tracked in the greenhouse and that once it’s contaminated, it can be difficult to clean out ... because a greenhouse or controlled environment is so heavily reliant on water, water becomes one of the most common ways produce can become contaminated. With lettuce, for instance, the contact with water is constant and consistent. That can be a risk.
PG: In terms of standards, are there well-established food safety best practices for a controlled environment setting?
SI: There are two things to think about. One is asking what the standards are and what is available as mitigation measures. The Food Safety Modernization Act actually prescribes a set of standards that apply to any produce grown in a field or a greenhouse; the best practices that can prevent contamination are mostly known for field production, because your CEA industry is still blooming. But food safety measures are just now being studied. So, for instance, in our lab, myself and Dr. Melanie Lewis Ivey, who studies plant pathology, are performing experiments that are supposed to determine the parameters that are going to be optimal for reduction of risks and elimination of contaminants in a controlled environment. So there is still work to be done.
PG: What steps can growers take to actually develop a plan?
SI: In any environment, depending on how your production is set up, your controls are going to be different. It is important that producers actually do have a food safety plan and that plan has to include everything from quality of the irrigation water, to sanitation of the environment, to worker health and hygiene, to post-harvest handling. It’s a great start if a producer can develop a flow of product and know exactly what steps are involved in production, and then they must ensure that there are preventive measures at every step.
Note: This interview has been edited for space and clarity.