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September 10th, 2009

Bridging the GAPs

Strategies to Improve Produce Safety, Preserve Farm Diversity and Strengthen Local Food Systems

Although the vast majority of produce-related food-borne illnesses in the United States are traced back to food processors and not to farms, several recent outbreaks associated with fresh or fresh-cut produce have brought the farm squarely into the food safety picture. A 2006 outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 in bagged, ready-to-eat spinach and iceberg lettuce sent consumers running from leafy greens; a 2008 Salmonella outbreak, linked first to tomatoes and then to chili peppers, had a similar chilling effect. As a result, both government and industry have developed guidelines or strict protocols intended to improve produce safety on the farm.

Farmers selling to multiple buyers find themselves entwined in an increasingly complex and costly web of food safety programs, audits and certifications.

Driven by a desire to prevent liability and to reassure consumers, many wholesale produce buyers and handlers from regional distributors serving schools, to multinational supermarket chains require farmers to comply with one or more of these on-farm food safety protocols. The protocols typically govern water and land use, worker hygiene, wildlife management and other activities. Often, the farmer must pay for an audit to demonstrate compliance before the buyer will purchase his or her product. Farmers selling to multiple buyers find themselves entwined in an increasingly complex and costly web of food safety programs, audits and certifications.

Report Findings:

• Existing food safety protocols, particularly those developed by industry, are not always grounded in sufficient independent science. In fact, scientific evidence suggests that their approach could harm food safety outcomes rather than improving them.

  • Many industry protocols broadly target animals and wildlife habitat as a risk. The industry‚ approach contradicts research showing that only certain animals carry pathogens; that practices in use on diversified, conservation-oriented farms, including vegetation planted between fields and around waterways, benefit food safety by slowing the movement of pathogenic organisms in water and dust; and that the incorporation of well-managed animal manure and other natural fertilizers into soil can suppress the presence of pathogenic organisms in soil.
  • Most protocols employ a ‚one-size-fits-all” approach that does not consider different types and levels of risk present in different products or production systems. The vast majority of food-borne illness outbreaks in leafy greens, for example, are linked to bagged, ready-to-eat salad mixes, but the LGMA also covers whole, bunched greens. On a related note, while risks are present on farms of all sizes, the scale does matter: the consolidation of food production and processing into the hands of fewer and larger operations, and the national and global supply chains that bring much of our food from farms to consumers, have increased the chance that a single contamination incident could sicken a large number of people.

• The current system burdens farmers and confuses consumers. Because so many different food safety protocols exist, farmers wishing to sell to multiple buyers are asked to comply with (and pay for) multiple protocols and audits. Consumers see a variety of claims made about the safety of their produce and have no way to compare or evaluate these claims.

• The current system suffers from a lack of transparency. Many of the industry protocols are considered trade secrets and their requirements are not made pubic. As a result, it is impossible for consumers, researchers or policymakers to assess their performance. There is no public evidence that these protocols have improved food safety.

• Existing food safety protocols are reversing decades of publicly funded environmental protection efforts on U.S. farms. The messages that farmers receive from buyers contradict messages from federal and state conservation agencies. Farmers in at least one region of the country are declining to participate in federal conservation programs because of concerns that doing so will jeopardize their ability to comply with industry food safety requirements.

• Greater regulation of industrial livestock and poultry facilities is needed in order to improve the safety of fresh produce. Current protocols penalize farmers for proximity to feedlots, whose placement the farmers cannot control. Industrial animal facilities, particularly those routinely using feed laced with antibiotics, are a significant source of pathogens such as E. coli 0157:H7, including drug-resistant strains, in the environment. These facilities must be more stringently regulated as part of any comprehensive food safety policy.

• The current system jeopardizes efforts to build local and regional food systems. Smaller, limited resource and/or more diverse farms often cannot or will not comply with programs that require expensive testing, audits and electronic documentation and that mandate the removal of conservation practices. Because of the expense and the practices required by many food safety protocols, the system is biased in favor of larger, less-diverse farms and access to food produced locally, sustainably or on smaller-scale operations is limited.