Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Most people don’t think of clean food and a healthy environment as zero-sum goals. Yet, worsened water quality and lost wildlife habitat are unintended consequences of new farming measures designed to keep pathogens out of locally grown spinach and lettuce. Rattled by lawsuits, depressed sales and public distrust, many companies that buy and package leafy greens are demanding that growers change or eliminate their conservation practices.
Disease-carrying produce is devastating to human health and to industry. In recent years, repeat cases of contamination have been traced back to the Salinas Valley, shattering consumer confidence in packaged greens and rapping a hard knock on local agriculture. In September 2006, an E. coli scare that sickened hundreds of people and killed three was traced to spinach grown in San Benito County and packaged by Dole Fresh Vegetables. That year, spinach sales fell by 41 percent. In August 2007, a batch of spinach grown by Metz Fresh in King City tested positive for salmonella, a gut-wrenching bacterium. About three weeks later, a packaged Dole salad mix including locally grown lettuce tested positive for E. coli, triggering a recall in the United States and Canada.
Although researchers haven’t figured out exactly how the harmful E. coli strain has gotten into local fields, prime suspects include cows, pigs and deer. Salmonella can be carried by reptiles, rodents and even hedgehogs. The sheer volume of potential disease vectors has turned the effort to keep pathogens out of farms into a draconian crackdown on wildlife.
At the insistence of vegetable buyers – the handlers that process, package and ship produce – many local farmers are stripping vegetation from the banks of their ditches, uprooting grasses, removing ponds, erecting tall fences and using more rodenticides. The changes are evident at Monterey County farms, even from the road: bare agriculture ditches, T-shaped PVC pipes spiked with rodent bait, and fences taller than Shaq.
The sanitation-versus-conservation debate is a double-edged sword, according to Monterey County Farm Bureau Executive Director Bob Perkins. If growers refuse to take steps to keep animals off their fields, buyers might reject their crops. But if they fortify their fields against pathogens at the expense of habitat and water quality, they invite scrutiny from resource conservation agencies that look out for water and wildlife.
“This is a touchy issue any way you approach it,” Perkins says. “We had a concern from the very beginning that some of the food safety guidelines that were promulgated could be at cross-purposes with some of our [conservation] practices.”
The invisible hand
As signatories to the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, produce buyers and handlers such as Salinas-based Dole Fresh Vegetables, Fresh Express and Taylor Farms agree to industry-developed farm management practices known as “metrics.” They impose the metrics on suppliers through inspections and audits, rejecting crops grown on fields that don’t pass muster.
“More than 90 percent of the handlers that buy fresh product are signatories to the agreement,” Perkins says. “So if you’re a grower in this county and you want to sell product, you’ve gotta be on board with the food safety metrics.”
April England, food safety manager for Marina-based Martin Jefferson & Sons, describes clashing food safety and conservation goals as “a huge conflict.” England, whose former titles include watershed coordinator for the farm bureau and food safety specialist for Dole, explains that growers who want to do the right thing are in a legal bind. A conditional waiver issued by the regional water board requires farmers to adopt water quality improvement practices, such as planting native grasses on the banks of their runoff ditches, adding cover crops and vegetated buffers to control erosion and installing basins to catch sediment.
“As a result, there are millions of feet of grassed waterways that have been put in along the Central Coast,” she says.
Because of the E. coli scares, many buyers now require wide bare-earth buffers between crops, water and non-crop vegetation – leading growers to rip out the grasses they’d planted in cooperation with resource managers. Where non-crop vegetation is considered protected habitat, as with the Salinas River, farmers are forced to give up productive acres.
In addition to ripping out native vegetation, farmers are taking other measures to discourage wildlife from hanging out in their fields. Where deer pose a problem, some growers have erected expensive eight-foot fences. Black plastic often covers the bottom of those fences so lizards and rodents can’t crawl through. Where rats and voles are a concern, some farmers have placed poisoned bait stations at regular intervals along their crop rows. In other instances, growers have removed vegetation and ponds to reduce potential habitat.
“The essence of the rules is that a lot of the wildlife poses a potential risk of contamination,” Perkins says.
While measures to keep animals out of fields are intended to protect public health, they frustrate agencies working with growers to enhance wildlife habitat. Terry Palmisano, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, says some of the new food safety practices can have a significant effect on local fauna. Removal of vegetation from riverbanks allows more dirt to fall into the water, impairing steelhead habitat. Large fences make it harder for wide-ranging animals, like endangered San Joaquin kit foxes and cougars, to get from one place to another.
Perkins says most farmers are rooting for nature. “The growers are the ultimate environmentalists, because they live with and depend on the environment. They like the wildlife,” he says. But they also need to sell their products, and buyers will typically reject crops if they see evidence animals have passed through. “They simply won’t harvest it, and that’s a huge loss to the food supply.”
Ultimately, food safety trumps the environment as far as the agriculture industry is concerned. “We have to be able to assure all consumers. We have to protect them,” Perkins says. “Public health and safety is absolutely paramount, and I think everybody understands that. When you’re talking about people getting sick to dying, that’s of utmost concern.”
And if consumers don’t trust produce, they won’t buy it – a strong incentive for companies and regulators to get tough on farmers.
One of the region’s goliath produce buyers, Dole Fresh Vegetables, has required some of its suppliers to set rodent bait stations and erect wildlife fences. The company hasn’t asked growers to remove non-crop vegetation, says spokesman Marty Ordman. “We always take into effect environmental practices,” he says. “Obviously you want to do your utmost to provide quality food out there.”
A nature-based view
Last spring, the Monterey County Resource Conservation District surveyed more than 600 Central Coast farmers to gauge the extent of the conservation-food safety conflict. Of the leafy green growers, 41 percent indicated they had removed wildlife in response to pressure from auditors and others. Thirty-two percent had pulled out non-crop vegetation, and 7 percent had eliminated ponds or water bodies. More than half used bare-ground buffers and poisoned bait stations to keep animals out, and about 40 percent used traps and fences. All told, nearly 90 percent indicated they had adopted at least one measure to deter wildlife from cropped areas.
“It’s very frustrating,” says district program manager Melanie Beretti. “It’s a real setback, and it’s disappointing. But it’s just a new challenge that we’re trying to address head on.” The results are probably conservative, she adds, because the survey was done at the beginning of the first season the new food safety metrics were in effect.
Farmers who sell their own products are freer to establish food safety protocols. For Jamie Collins of the 30-acre, all-organic Serendipity Farms, the new standards are too harsh on the natural order. “Now it’s everything sterile,” says Collins, who does not sell leafy greens wholesale. “What’re you gonna do? Grow everything in a bubble? Farmers do everything they can to make their food safe.”
In Collins’ view, fostering healthy wildlife habitat makes for healthier crops. On her farm, owls and cats keep rodents under control. Hedgerows reduce erosion, and native plants attract pollinators. Diverse, organically grown crops rotated across the land help keep the soil fertile. Serendipity’s fields are surrounded by an electric fence to keep out deer, but smaller animals like badgers still can slip through. Collins is careful to keep her equipment clean and wash her harvest. “This is how people have been doing it for years,” she says.
Because Collins herself distributes Serendipity’s harvest locally, she hasn’t been strong-armed into following new industry standards that she believes would compromise her farm’s ecological balance. “Until I’m forced to do something about it I’m not going to,” she says, “because I really don’t believe in it.”
But she worries that the government might adopt legislation along the lines of state Sen. Dean Florez’s proposal to mandate wildlife fencing, product coding, state inspections and pre-harvest water testing. “It’s going to wipe out small farmers,” Collins says. “We couldn’t afford to be around if we had to do that.”
It’s impossible to eliminate the risk of produce contamination, she notes. Most produce inevitably will have some dirt residue, so consumers should know to always wash their greens. “Food is not a sterile thing,” she says.
Juggling conservation and food safety goals gets more complicated for big organic farms.
Will Daniels, vice president of food safety at Earthbound Farm, works to reduce the risk of contamination while maintaining the ethics of a mostly organic operation. Earthbound requires its more than 100 growers to nurture the land by feeding the soil, rotating crops and maintaining a healthy ecosystem.
But food safety is a critical concern for Earthbound, which, like Dole, bought spinach from the farm blamed for the 2006 E. coli outbreak. Daniels sat on the committee that developed the safety standards in the marketing agreement, which Earthbound has signed.
Though he supports the agreement’s overall goals, Daniels is uncomfortable with several of its components. Considering that the E. coli outbreaks have been traced to bagged greens, he feels there should be as much focus on processing facilities as on fields. Earthbound tests for pathogens in its farms’ water and soil, but also in the raw products being processed.
Daniels also criticizes the marketing agreement’s anti-animal slant. “Some of those on the committee thought that the best way to take care of the wildlife is by putting fences in and taking out the habitat,” he says. “We don’t feel that putting up a fence is going to necessarily eliminate the risk.”
The push to remove non-crop plants is another bone of contention. “You may be increasing your risk [of E. coli contamination] by removing vegetation,” he says. “You’re essentially removing the habitat that the animal existed in, and then where’s the animal gonna go?
“Bacteria play an important role in our lives and in our environment, and moving more towards sterilization, I think, will actually present more risks and more dangers than working within the current environment. A scorched-earth policy does not ring well in our ears and is not the right answer. You need to have a balanced environment to grow healthy food.”
Backlash from small farmers
The produce packing and shipping industry may be forcing the new standards on leafy green producers, but some growers are pushing back.
Community Alliance with Family Farmers, based in Davis, Calif., is leading the opposition to the industry-wide effort to sanitize fields. “We are definitely campaigning against this,” says Kira Pascoe, CAFF’s food safety coordinator. “Right now, [the agreement] discriminates against biological and diverse farmers. We think there needs to be different standards for different kinds of farms.”
The marketing agreement makes no distinction between processed and traditional leafy greens, Pascoe notes. According to data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 99 percent of illnesses caused by the E. coli strain since 1999 have been traced to bagged salad greens. That’s likely because one dirty leaf can contaminate thousands when they’re mixed together in the same water.
In mid-November, the alliance lobbied U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to drop a proposed amendment to the federal farm bill that would have imposed the marketing agreement on all growers nationwide. Feinstein withdrew the amendment for a variety of reasons, according to spokesman Scott Gerber.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is accepting comments on whether it should enact industry-wide standards for leafy greens. In a recent newsletter, the Community Alliance with Family Farmers says such a move would “devastate traditional leafy-green farmers.” The group complains that the largest processors drafted and signed the marketing agreement, excluding small farmers and distributors. While the new rules may work for big operations, the alliance maintains they are impractical for small-scale and organic farmers.
The marketing agreement has prompted a sort of race to the bottom, imposing ever-stricter standards on farmers, in the alliance’s view. “Now, various buyers (such as chain grocery stores and fast-food chains) are competing with one another to see who can have the most extreme rules,” the newsletter states.
Desperate for data
On all sides, frustration is palpable that the science on food safety isn’t more conclusive. “Throughout this discussion it’s been an issue for the growers: Where do the standards come from and what supports them?” Perkins says. “We don’t want to be doing too much and we don’t want to do too little.”
But the mission to eliminate wildlife on America’s farmland may prove to be impossible. “Since the spinach outbreak last year, everybody’s aiming for zero risk,” Perkins says. “We realize we can’t get to zero. But in the wake of the spinach outbreak, we have a lot of people who think we should.
“If we could grow vegetables in a glass jar, we’d have a pretty high probability of eliminating risk,” he adds. “Short of that, we have some risk. The urgent need is more and better science on which of these precautions truly contributes to food safety.”