About fifteen years ago, while flying home from Mexico with a group of Carolina vegetable farmers that had been touring the industry south of the border, I overheard a conversation that I have never forgotten. One of the farmers in the row behind me found himself seated next to a young lady schoolteacher. When she learned that he was a farmer, she gently admonished him for using the land for profit and “wearing out” the earth. A long conversation ensued and eventually she asked him what he would tell her students if he had an opportunity to talk to them about farmers and their values. His reply to her was remarkable in every sense.
He said that he would tell the students that farmers are not true owners, but are stewards, of the land, who have only a short lifetime to care for it. Farmers love and protect the land, which is the source of their livelihood and food for the world. To abuse or destroy the productivity of the land would bring harm to all of us now and to the generations that follow. He went on to talk about the business of farming, the importance of soil conservation, fuel consumption, and proper chemical use, not only for the environment but for the profitability of the business as well. He explained that so few people today have been exposed to farms that they do not have a good understanding of where their food comes from, and that the public is often misled by negative publicity about farming that may be created by reporters who themselves do not know what farming is about. I thought that speech was the most eloquent and sincere description of a farmer’s dedication to the land that could be imagined. The young schoolteacher was completely won over.
Today, when I read articles or see reports on television about the safety of fresh produce, I am reminded of the dedication that one Carolina farmer had to his profession. I believe that dedication is even stronger today. Farmers too often are portrayed as irresponsible profiteers with little or no concern for the safety of their products. Granted, every profession will have its share of people who cut corners, but I believe that fruit and vegetable growers and handlers understand very well that their very existence in business depends upon their delivery of a safe product to the consumer. It’s worthwhile to review the record on food safety, to talk about some of the positive activities that are ongoing, and to define some of the challenges that the industry faces as we strive to reach a level of excellence that would result in the elimination of illness.
My personal involvement in fresh produce food safety began in 1990, when an outbreak of illness caused by Salmonella was associated with the consumption of fresh market tomatoes from South Carolina. A second incident in 1993 demanded that some action be taken. As a post harvest extension specialist, I had a close working relationship with our state tomato association, so it was logical that I became the liaison between our industry and the investigator from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It was a good experience for all of us. We funded research on the survival of Salmonella on tomatoes that was conducted at the University of Georgia. We developed a plan for the safe handling of tomatoes in the field and for water quality management in packing-houses. All of that work was published well ahead of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Guidance document that did not appear until 1998. The industry response to that crisis of the early 90s was proactive, conscientious, thorough, and responsive to the need that consumers have safe tomatoes.
Since then, the tomato industry has slowly but steadily continued to adopt GAP programs. Today the major tomato production states, with much leadership from Florida, have implemented greater oversight with focus on third-party auditing and testing of its product.
Similar advances have occurred in the peach industry. About 10 years ago I spoke on food safety at a national peach convention and I had the impres-sion that the audience had almost no interest in the topic. But at some point the realization of the consequences of an outbreak of illness caught the attention of the industry and today every single packer in South Carolina has a third-party auditing program. Packing houses are cleaner, have better sanitary facilities, more limited access, better pest control programs, and many other GAP-based practices. Although the peach industry has never faced an outbreak crisis, it has voluntarily taken its food safety programs to a higher level.
None of the fresh produce commodity groups have faced more scrutiny or criticism than the leafy greens industry of California. Almost every professional society or trade publication that crosses my desk has something to say about lettuce or spinach. Television reports have attacked the industry, almost relentlessly at times. Some politicians seem to believe that more regulation is the answer. The stress that the growers must feel is unimaginable to me. Many of their questions cannot be answered. If we cannot have cattle in proximity to a farm, how far away must the cattle be? If we must test our irrigation water, what do we test for, and how often must we test? How can we ever eliminate the presence of birds or a small animal crossing a field? What is a reasonable area for a buffer zone? Answers to these and many other questions will be critical in order for the industry to make further improvements in safe practices. Where will those answers come from? The FDA’s budget for research is severely limited, as is that of the land-grant University system. Science-based recommendations for addressing these issues will not be coming soon,
leaving farmers to make many judgment calls that leave them open to criticism and liability.
One might reasonably ask why we still have still safety issues with fresh produce if we already have good knowledge of safe practices for growing and handling. The Guidance that FDA published in 1998 for minimizing the risk of microbial contamination on fresh produce has served as a useful template for the development of food safety programs. Most of us recognize that a lot of good common sense went into the writing of that document. But we still do not have compelling research evidence to tell us that systematic implementation of the FDA recommendations will eliminate risk altogether. In fact, many companies that have been blamed for causing illness had GAP programs in place at the time of the outbreak. I believe that farmers are receptive to sound recommendations for changing their management practices to make food safer, but those of us in public service have to provide leadership in developing those recommendations.
Let’s think about the concept of risk. We can never remove 100% of the risk from eating produce, just as we can never eliminate all of the risk from any other daily activity such as driving a car, riding a bike, taking a shower, or even sleeping. People are injured in the shower and they die in their sleep. Risk is a part of life. Fruit and vegetables are not produced in a sterile environment. There is risk that microbes will be carried onto the fresh product from soil or water, and we know that microbes are difficult and sometimes impossible to remove with currently approved treatments. But how great is this risk? According to USDA Agricultural Marketing Service statistics, our annual production of vegetables in the U.S is over 200 billion pounds. We consume over 800 million pounds of spinach and consume over 3 billion bags of pre-packaged salads. Sadly, some people do become ill. But I believe that most people accept the premise that the health benefits of eating fresh fruit and vegetables far outweigh the risk of contracting an illness.
Microbiological testing is a hot topic today. I submit that testing fresh produce is akin to finding a needle in a very large haystack considering the enormous volume of produce that we consume and the fact that a test is done on such a small amount of product. Microbiologists and industry leaders will continue to debate the merits of testing. It seems unlikely to me that we can ever test safety into fresh produce.
There is an old saying that we should not complain about farmers with our mouths full. It has a nice ring to it, but I can’t agree whole-heartedly. Complaints will keep attention on food safety issues and will push farmers and all of us who work with food to do our jobs better.
This article first appeared in L+G’s Food Safety Newsletter in October 2007.