New Food Safety Rules May Do More Harm Than Good
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Dale Coke has been farming in California's San Benito County for nearly 30 years, and the thousands of days of wind and sun are etched in the deep lines of his long, lean face. His hands are tough, with fingers that are as adept at fixing a broken water pump as they are at handling a freshly cut head of lettuce. Coke, 54 with salt-and-pepper hair, was one of the pioneers of the organic farming industry. In 1980, he started growing salad mix in the valleys of California's Central Coast, and by the end of the 1990s he had nearly 500 acres under cultivation. But then the salad mix market "got too complicated," he says, and so he downsized to 250 acres, and today focuses on specialty crops such as fennel, dinosaur kale, and beets, which he sells to Whole Foods and restaurants.
When talking about the economics of organic farming, a joker's grin flirts with the edges of Coke's mouth, as if he knows the punch line to some inside joke about a business he has seen transform from a mom-and-pop enterprise to a multibillion dollar industry that is the fastest growing segment of the food market. But for Coke, recent changes in the fresh produce industry are nothing to laugh about. A year and a half after an E. coli outbreak traced to bagged spinach killed three people, hospitalized 100, and sickened dozens more, farmers and processors are still struggling with how best to ensure food safety. According to Coke and other farmers, some of the new practices intended to improve food safety are misguided and misinformed, and risk undermining environmentally sound farming practices in the area surrounding California's Salinas Valley. The region produces more than half of the country's lettuce, and is affectionately referred to by locals as "The Nation's Salad Bowl."
"This is all a knee-jerk reaction by the salad marketers to get their market back, because no one would touch spinach," Coke says. "It's a sham foisted on the consumers by the salad processors. ... The farmers are caught between these two things [food safety rules and environmental protection], and now they don't know what to do. Are they going to tear out all the trees?"
It's a chilly December day, and the rolling hills surrounding Coke's fields are just starting to turn from gold to green. We're driving in Coke's mud-splattered Honda Element as he takes me on a tour of his ranch, which is just down the road from the sleepy mission town of San Juan Bautista. We pass a Latino field crew harvesting chard and burdock root, then turn past a shelterbelt of pines. Another turn brings us alongside an irrigation ditch bordered with reeds and native willows. As Coke complains about how "it seems like the new vision of salad crops is bare dirt or lettuce with no room for wildlife to hang out," a great egret steps from the brush. The tall bird stands in the sun for a minute, and Coke and I silently watch the animal. Then Coke puts his foot on the gas and the bird takes flight, a bright white streak against the dark brown fields.
It's a lovely sight -- unless, that is, you work as a food safety inspector for one of the bag lettuce processors, in which case that bird could be considered a risk for spreading dangerous pathogens.
The September 2006 E. coli outbreak dealt a major blow to the $2.5 billion bagged salad industry, as sales dropped 30 percent. To help ease consumer worries -- and to forestall any new federal or state regulations -- the salad packagers created the "Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement" (LGMA). The agreement, which most of the large growers have signed on to, sets up baseline standards for sanitizing equipment, field worker cleanliness, water testing, and restricting wildlife encroachments. To further distinguish themselves among consumers, some processors are demanding even stricter rules -- often called "super metrics" -- from their grower-suppliers. For example, some packagers won't accept lettuce grown within 150 feet of a waterway that attracts wildlife, and are requiring fields to be set back a quarter of a mile from any cattle pasture. If livestock or wild animals do gain access to a field, the grower is expected to "destroy any product potentially contaminated by the animal." According to some standards, Coke's tree-lined canal, the amphibians that live there, and the egret that uses it as a watering hole are unacceptable vectors for disease.
Such requirements are causing frustration and anger among both small-scale organic farmers and larger conventional growers who say that the food safety rules have gone too far, and in the process are rolling back decades of progress in maintaining water quality, establishing wildlife corridors, and protecting biodiversity.
A spring 2007 survey conducted by the Monterey County Resource Conservation District found that 40 percent of farmers on the California Central Coast have removed wildlife from their fields on the recommendation of food safety auditors. About 30 percent have eliminated non-crop vegetation from their farms, and seven percent of farmers have bulldozed in ponds or other waterways to meet processor requirements. One grower lost $17,500 worth of crops because deer tracks were found in his field; another had to halt a harvest because frogs and tadpoles were discovered in a nearby creek. Many growers who participated in the survey expressed concern about the conflicting priorities of food safety and environmental protection.
"I am all for the environment and safe food," one farmer wrote, "but feel many new food safety ideas are being driven by fear and uncertainty rather than sound science."
Another farmer wrote: "We are very concerned about upsetting the natural balance, but we have to comply with our shipper's requests."
"Growers aren't happy at being put between a rock and a hard place between food safety and the environment," says Melanie Beretti, who conducted the farmer survey for the conservation district. "At every level, there's a lack of understanding of the in-field realities and what farming looks like in the Salinas Valley."
Though surrounded by the produce plantations of the Salinas Valley, the inside of the Fresh Express processing plant couldn't be farther away from the gritty experience of the farm fields. Fresh Express is the giant of the bagged salad industry, selling more than 40 percent of all the packaged salad in the U.S. -- more than its next three competitors combined. The $1.3 billion company, owned by Chiquita Brands, provides salad to 25 million Americans every week; institutional customers include Taco Bell and the U.S. military.
The processing plant is a marvel of industrial design. Inside the climate-controlled plant, kept at a crisp 40 degrees F, hundreds of employees are busy trimming, sorting, rinsing, and bagging salad mix. The scale is awesome: Huge 55-gallon stainless steel drums containing 180 pounds of romaine lettuce move about on thick cables; a river of spinach passes through a double wash, then is spun dry in a six-foot tall robotic colander. Giant bins of chopped cabbage, lettuce, and carrots line one wall, waiting to be combined.
The commitment to sanitation is intense. All employees and visitors are required to pass their hands through an automatic wash on the way in, and also to dip their shoes into a blue-colored cleaning solution. Hair and beard nets are required; jewelry and watches are prohibited. In the processing room, the sharp scent of the chlorine used in the rinse water is unmistakable. Massive tubs of citric acid maintain the water at an even pH.
In trying to explain the peculiarities of our industrial food system, Michael Pollan, writing in The New York Times Magazine , has pointed out that "in effect, we're washing the whole nation's salad in one big sink." If so, then this factory in central California is that sink: The Fresh Express factory in Salinas packages 10,000 cases of salad an hour, or roughly 240 million bags of lettuce every year.
One has only to glimpse the tall stacks of bagged lettuce at the grocery store to gauge the popularity of packaged salad. It's the ideal product for a rushed age. Fresh Express -- along with competitors Dole, Ready Pac, and Earthbound Farm -- are largely selling convenience. Most obviously, this means the luxury of not having to wash the leaves (though independent groups such as Consumers Union do recommend a second rinse). It also means, for salad mixes, not having to combine several different kinds of lettuces on your own. At the same time, the salad processors are in the business of marketing cleanliness. Fresh Express executives are explicit that a large part of the value they provide their customers is simply sanitation.
"We wash our lettuce more thoroughly than do our consumers at home," says Bill Clyburn, Fresh Express's vice president of manufacturing. "Do you sanitize your countertops daily? Here we swab everything down, all our stainless steel equipment, daily. ... Personally, I don't eat head lettuce. Go to the grocery store and look at how people are breathing all over the head, putting their nose right in it to smell it, even though it doesn't have a scent."
If cleanliness is a key part of your marketing strategy, then there is no greater threat to your company's success than the implication that your product might be tainted with dangerous pathogens -- which is why Fresh Express, along with the grocery and restaurant chains it sells to, has gone to such great lengths to demand new practices from farmers. Practices, some say, that are more about protecting public relations than preserving public health.
The Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement was intended to provide the produce growers with a single set of rules for in-field food safety. The agreement -- written by a small group of the largest produce growers -- calls for monthly water testing, regular site inspections, and frequent cleaning of harvesting equipment. It suggests that farmers maintain at least a 30-foot buffer of bare ground between grazing lands and row crops; that field workers do not harvest crops within a 5-foot radius of any animal feces they find; and that fields be left fallow for at least 60 days after any flood.
Fresh Express has a much stricter set of standards. It requires its suppliers to maintain a several hundred-foot buffer around grazing lands; requires 150 of bare ground around waterways; and won't accept food from any lands that have experienced a flood in the last five years. These rules are clearly designed to attract favor from retail customers such as Wal-Mart, McDonald's, the Walt Disney Company properties, and Publix Supermarkets, all of which have established a zero-tolerance policy regarding animal encroachments and field flooding.
"I think that some of the processors are pushing way too hard, absolutely," says Jeff Gilles, an attorney with the Salinas firm Lombardo & Gilles. During the course of his 29-year career, Gilles has represented so many Central Coast growers, shippers, and processors that he is something of an establishment voice within the region's agricultural community. "They are using it for marketing purposes, and for no other reason than that. I also think that the buyers are pushing way too hard on the processors. ... I don't think farmers want to build eight-foot-high fences. If you find a hawk turd in your field and you're forced to disk up the field and lose $80,000 -- that's something a farmer would never do."
During the last 20 years, government agencies have worked hard in California to encourage growers to adopt more sustainable land management practices. Because it is so close to the Pacific Ocean, the Salinas Valley has a major problem with salt water intruding into the local aquifer. In an effort to maintain healthy aquifers, government officials have launched programs in the area to maintain and construct wetlands and native plant corridors. An estimated 90 percent of farmers in the region have, over the years, taken some action -- planting hedgerows, creating storm water ponds, using off-season cover crops, or constructing wetlands -- to improve water quality and wildlife habitat. Now, because of some food safety rules, those accomplishments are at risk.
"My concern is the ripple effect, things getting worse in addition to the setbacks we've already seen," says the Monterey Conservation District's Beretti. "It's disconcerting to see this having such a broad impact."
Many farmers are reluctant to talk to the press about the situation. I made numerous calls to a half dozen growers in the region who did not return my messages. One large-scale conventional farmer who did call me back is Joe Pezzini, who manages land around Castroville, CA, a burg of 7,000 people in the flat center of the valley that boasts being "the artichoke capital of the world."
Pezzini, a slim man with silver hair, comes from a farming family; his grandfather started farming in the valley in 1930, and his cousin Guido today manages a local produce stand. Pezzini is the vice president of operations for Ocean Mist Farms, a family-owned company that grows and markets its own produce. The company, which farms 10,000 acres in California and Arizona, is the country's largest supplier of artichokes, and is also a major producer of broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, and romaine and iceberg lettuce. When the E. coli outbreak occurred, Pezzini was serving as the chair of the Central California Grower-Shippers Association, a position that put him at the center of the effort to create new in-field food safety standards. Today, he is concerned that the demands from some grocery chains and processors have gone too far.
"A lot of farmers are getting stuck in the middle," Pezzini says. "They're saying, 'I want to survive economically, but we can't do that if we keep the pond in the middle of the ranch.'"
Pezzini's company, while following the LGMA rules, doesn't have to meet some of the super metrics required by other packers. Since Ocean Mist has its own brand, it enjoys the luxury of resisting some buyer requirements. "We have turned down some customers because they had unreasonable expectations," Pezzini says. "A lot of growers have less leverage, and are getting pushed down upon."
Ocean Mist's independence has allowed the company to maintain the wetlands and wildlife corridors on its properties. As an example, Pezzini took me on a drive to Del Sante Ranch, an artichoke farm (he says "ar-TEE-choke") a few miles from the beaches of Monterey Bay. When we climbed out of Pezzini's dusty Ford pickup, we were surrounded by long, neat rows of artichoke shrubs, and, behind us, a slough full of young willow trees. In the midst of the waterway stood several tall posts, placed there to serve as stands for passing birds.
"There used to be a lot of wetlands around here, and they served a useful purpose," Pezzini says. Not only do the wetlands help keep salt water out of the aquifers, they also provide habitat for raptors that prey upon gophers, voles, and mice looking for a field snack. "These wetlands house predators, and they do keep the rodents down, who otherwise would eat the artichokes. It does have a benefit, and we see that benefit."
Pezzini, like other people I spoke with, is especially worried that some of the super metrics don't seem grounded in science. At least one set of standards suggests that only potable water should be used to irrigate crops. There is also a preoccupation with keeping any deer, rodents, or wild pigs out of farm fields. Yet the science is inconclusive as to whether such animals are common carriers of E. coli O157:H7, the pathogen that has sickened people. According to a research brief prepared by the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California at Santa Cruz, "research has shown that wild animals exhibit relatively low levels or an absence of E. coli."
Ironically, some of the in-field production rules may be counterproductive to the goal of reducing pathogen spread. For example, while many of the new requirements discourage non-crop vegetation, studies reveal that hedgerows and other vegetative barriers serve as a kind of natural water filter.
"There's some very promising work that shows biotic processes can reduce the risk of pathogen contamination -- there's a buffering and filtering effect," says Beretti. "I think everyone acknowledges that there's not a lot of scientific documentation for these requirements."
Indeed, they do. As the conflict between food safety rules and best land management practices becomes more pronounced, industry players are rushing to conduct research that can serve as a common basis for field production standards. In December, members of the California Roundtable on Agriculture and the Environment came together to discuss ways of combining the various studies being conducted by government agencies, universities, and private companies.
"All of the farmers would love to see a uniform set of standards, so that everyone is playing by the same rules, so that standards aren't driven by unilateral moves in the market," says attorney Gilles. "The farmers want to make decisions based on science -- not on whim, whether it's the processor's whim or the consumer's whim."
Gilles, however, may not be reading the situation entirely right: Not all farmers want a uniform set of standards. In fact, that's exactly what many small- and medium-sized organic farmers fear. They worry that the LGMA rules could become mandatory. Such a move, many organic farmers say, would jeopardize one of the very solutions to large-scale food-borne illnesses -- local production for local consumption.
As they watch conventional growers struggle with the new demands of processors and retailers, organic farmers are concerned that either state or federal regulators might use the LGMA as a basis for government-enforced standards. Another worry is that the California Leafy Greens Marketing Board could vote to make the agreement's rules compulsory, so that anyone wanting to sell produce to a wholesaler or restaurant would have to follow them.
To prevent that from happening, some of California's organic farmers have begun organizing against a one-size-fits-all approach. They say that the problem of food-borne illnesses isn't a concern for leafy greens in general, but for one specific kind of product: bagged lettuce. They point out that 98.5 percent of E. coli-related illnesses involving produce have been traced back to processed salad.
"It poses some problems when you pre-cut salad and put it in a bag," Dale Coke says. "Basically, they made the perfect incubator. It's just problematic."
Andy Griffin of Mariquita Farm -- which sells to several top San Francisco Bay Area restaurants such as Zuni CafÃ© and Chez Panisse -- agrees. For him, the trouble is not the farms, but rather the food system.
"When everything goes through one tiny aperture, you have the opportunity for everyone to get sick," he says. "The problem isn't the source of E. coli. The problem is this grotesque system of food industrialization. That's the real food insecurity."
Such talk makes others in the organic market uneasy. Will Daniels is the vice president of food safety at Earthbound Farms, which is the fourth biggest seller of bagged salad and has a virtual monopoly on organic processed lettuce. Daniels says that the conflict between food safety and environmental protection has "been blown a little out of proportion," and that many organic farmers are worried because they weren't involved in writing the LGMA rules. As the chair of the board of Certified California Organic Farmers, Daniels says he tried very hard to represent organic growers in the process. "We don't support a scorched earth policy," he says.
While acknowledging that bagged lettuce has unique challenges, he says that all farmers have a responsibility to maintain food safety. Uniform federal rules for produce handling, Daniels says, is his company's preferred solution. "What we're trying to focus on is that everyone needs to be concerned about food safety, regardless of scale or product or market," he says. "We'd like to see national legislation, because it's important that we have a level playing field."
Judith Redmond, a co-owner of Full Belly Farm and chair of the Community Alliance of Family Farmers, isn't so sure. "It's a complex situation," says Redmond, who has led the fight against making the LGMA rules mandatory. "We think this farm-by-farm approach is really flawed. We need to look at the whole environment, and interrupt this pathogen, and that involves looking at the cattle industry. We know that the biggest reservoir of E. coli O157 is in the cattle industry and the big feed lots. ... Neither of those industries [the salad processors or the cattle ranchers] want the attention where it belongs. They want the attention on the small-scale family farmers. At some point they need to turn the mirror around."
Of course, blame is always in the eye of the beholder. The processors claim the biggest worry is production practices: "More than likely the contamination is happening out in the fields," Daniels says. The farmers prefer to think that the problem lies in the factories: "No one seems to question why the processing part is failing at its job," Coke says.
What everyone seems to agree on is that much of the trouble resides in "the market" -- that is, the expectations from grocery stores and restaurant chains that appear to want food created in a sterile environment. In a sense, then, the greatest challenge facing the produce industry is how to overcome people's ignorance of the natural conditions under which their greens are grown.
The hullabaloo over food safety rules represents something of a culture clash. Lettuce and other greens have typically been sold as fresh goods. With salad now a packaged shelf product, the expectations of food safety professionals -- who are accustomed to inspecting indoor factories -- are coming into conflict with the realities of vegetable farming.
That, at least, is how Ken Kimes sees it. For the last 27 years, Kimes and his wife, Sandra Ward, have operated a small farm called New Natives that grows sprouts and specialty micro greens for farmers market customers and restaurants around Santa Cruz, CA. According to Kimes, many of the new challenges facing farmers are due to a class of consultants who are unaccustomed to inspecting outdoor environments.
"There's this whole group of people who have risen up recently that I call the FSP -- the Food Safety Professionals -- and they have come over from the processing industry," Kimes says. "They are used to the idea that you can eliminate let's say 95 percent of the risk through environmental controls. And they are literally kind of stunned by the idea that when you get out to the farm, birds will fly around. They are surprised by that.
"When you try to control every risk, you are trying to control nature in the extreme, which is hard, because you are outside."
To be sure, the Salinas Valley is a manufactured landscape already well under the control of human hands. It is a terrain carefully shaped for our needs, a tightly managed checkerboard of lettuce crops, artichoke fields, and strawberry plantations. A visitor to the valley is more likely to see the straight lines of irrigation piping than the meandering route of a creek. Still, even in this controlled environment, nature persists, and driving along the valley's farm roads one can glimpse a hawk or a turkey vulture up in the air, or deer creeping out of the hills with the morning fog.
"Agriculture is not a very natural thing," Coke says, his joker grin lit up. "We're always manipulating the earth. But we'd like to co-exist with nature as much as possible. ... You're not going to control the wind or the birds or the insects."
The expectations of food safety professionals and the logic of biological systems are, perhaps, irreconcilable. Our modern food system demands uniformity; nature, in contrast, is an unruly polyculture. When you try to graft industrial practices onto agrarian systems, you just end up flattening out biodiversity.
The conflict stems, in no small part, from ignorance about the basics of agriculture. In a nation where less than two percent of the population are farmers, many people simply have no idea what is required to grow food. And, because they don't know, they are afraid. "I think a lot of people lament the fact that few of us here in the U.S. have a connection to farms," Pezzini says.
One solution, encouraged by farmers such as Coke, Kimes, and Redmond, is for people to get closer to their food -- to shop at farmers' markets or join Community Supported Agriculture programs, and by doing so learn more about the farms that produce their food and the people who work there.
Another solution may be for the processors -- and, by extension, for consumers -- to accept some risk. Of course, no one wants anyone to get sick from the food they eat. At the same time, it's important to recognize that there are some things we have no power over.
"I would like to hope that the consumer would understand that their health and welfare is paramount to what we do here -- but done in balance with the environment," Pezzini says. "We believe we've created a model that includes the best practices for minimizing the potential for contamination. And that's the key word -- minimizing. It's not eliminating."
That's because farming -- even with 21st century technology -- remains more of a craft than a science. Agriculture is an art that occurs in the open, subject to the whims of the weather, the unpredictable movement of water, the instincts of animals. It takes place in a space that, unlike the inside of the Fresh Express factory, is not entirely controllable.
"We are in the open air here -- there are no walls or ceilings," Pezzini says. "Mother Nature still has a hand in what we do."