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Observations

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Farms Take Food Safety into Their Own Hands

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Healthy food kills. Or at least, it can. In 2010, food borne illness sickened nearly 20,000 Americans. Of those infected, over 4,000 had to be hospitalized; 68 died. The main culprits were bacteria--Salmonella and E. Coli, to be precise, and they had taken cover in products widely considered healthy. Although E. Coli infection rates have declined somewhat since food production companies began meeting new food safety regulations in 2006, cases of Salmonella infection have remained steady for more than a decade. Americans spend an estimated $365 million in direct medical costs each year on treating cases of Salmonella poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. strawberry crops in farmer's fieldIn an effort to try to reduce outbreaks, some farmers and manufacturers are instituting new practices, rather than waiting for tougher regulations that may never be enforced anyway. Their motivation: the bottom line. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to enforce a universal set of standards for making sure the food we eat is safe. Regulations introduced in January of this year would allegedly strengthen the 2011 Food Safety Act by giving the FDA power to regulate agribusiness. Tougher rules may not help, however. Although FDA Food Commissioner Mike Taylor promises that national reform is on its way, the agency has little power to enforce the laws it hopes to mandate on U.S. farms. And domestic farms have historically been noncompliant with federal legislation. The FDA oversees more than three million food facilities, two million farms, 900,000 restaurants, 114,000 grocery retail outlets and 189,000 'other' food facilities. Without a robust effort to enforce safety mandates, the majority of these facilities go unregulated. The FDA currently inspects most U.S. food manufacturers once every 10 years. Passing federal legislation is one thing, says Taylor. Enforcing compliance is another. "This is not going to be easy," Taylor says. In the absence of federal food safety reform, consumers are looking for safer food, and farms are leading the charge to respond. As the public becomes more aware of bacterial outbreaks, consumers have begun to demand safer products through their collective buying power, says Greg West, president and CEO of National Pasteurized Eggs, Inc. in Lansing, Illin. West's company, which produces pasteurized eggs in an effort to eliminate Salmonella, has seen consumer demand double in the last year alone. "The consumer wants safe food, and consumers are reaching out for it," West says. And West's company is more than happy to supply them--sales of pasteurized eggs, he said, have skyrocketed since the outbreaks of the 90s and the more recent flare-up in 2006 made national headlines. Preventing bacterial outbreaks is a matter of reducing risk, says West. Some cases of Salmonella-related illness, West admitted, could have been prevented simply by cooking them all the way through. Unfortunately, many people don't cook eggs completely; over-easy, poached, and soft-boiled eggs are all bacterial vectors. "Why not stop the risk before it enters the supply chain?" says West. All of West's eggs go through a hot-water pasteurization bath. Afterward, each egg is sealed with a wax coating to prevent potential future contamination, and stamped with a red circle 'P' to denote that the eggs have been pasteurized. Other companies can't bathe their products in bacteria-killing solution. Earthbound Farm in San Juan Bautista, Calif. which lost $70 million as a result of an E. Coli outbreak in its fresh spinach, began a massive safety overhaul in 2006 that incorporated vigorous bacterial testing with innovative safety methods like UV radiation. "At the end of the day you can't rely on government or academia," says Earthbound Farm food safety director Will Daniels. "You have to have relationships with the suppliers and know the process." Earthbound is still perfecting its methods. At the moment, the company is working with NASA to develop technology that would predict how interactions between the environment, pathogens and produce could lead to pathogens. Eventually, Daniels says, they hope to be able to predict climate changes to prevent bacterial outbreaks before they start. When the farm knows of an approaching hotter-than-usual summer season, for example, growers can increase the amounts of UV radiation they apply. Daniels says NASA has already identified a strong correlation between weather events and test results that are positive for bacteria. The California Strawberry Commission has made products safer not by implementing new technologies but by better educating its farmers, says Andrew Kramer, director of grower education. Because strawberries are harvested year-round, the field is constantly replete with workers; as a people-centered crop, strawberries mandated a people-centered approach to safety. For example, when the company discovered that workers were taking breaks in the field rather than in designated areas to the side of the crops, it also found that trash residue was diminishing the quality of the crop and was attracting animals to the crop site. Drawn to the food scraps discarded by farmers on crop sites, Kramer's team found, animals and bacteria would often invade crops as well. Commission experts soon realized that gaps in communication between commissioners, growers and farmers was to blame--growers were not telling farmers about break protocol, and some weren't even supplying chairs in dedicated eating locations. So commission experts began a series of training and education workshops in English and Spanish, and instructed growers to provide workers with portable chairs at a central location, preventing food scraps from bringing bacteria to the crop site. To tackle other safety issues in the field, directors of the grower education program came up with their now famous food safety flipchart--a giant wooden how-to chart complete with diagrams and illustrations on safety in the field. Using the chart, farm safety educators conduct trainings that instruct workers on everything from correct hand-washing practices to how to identify a diseased crop before it infects the whole field. Kramer also leads the commission's food safety certificate program, which, through a series of five classes, has been successful at training growers and crews to harvest their crops in a way that minimizes disease outbreaks. "We're taking knowledge about the best ways to grow a safe crop and translating that to actual practice," says Kramer. Farms are at risk of contamination from a number of sources, from birds that fly overhead to the trash that farmers accidentally drop on crops. Although growers and processors may not be able to eliminate all problems, they are taking the steps to try to lessen pathogenic contamination.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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