Concerns over food safety are creating serious hazards for wildlife, humans and farm businesses by ignoring evidence-based risk management.
By Jennifer Biringer, Senior Director, The Nature Conservancy
New draft federal produce safety rules were released recently – a groundbreaking moment given that oversight of food safety hasn’t been updated since 1938.
The rules will go some way towards preventing people from getting sick from eating fresh produce by placing better controls throughout food supply chains. Also, there is some attention to balancing precaution around food safety with ecological integrity around how food is grown on the land – critical because the health of the food we eat is directly tied to how it’s grown.
The regulations provide a good foundation to a balanced approach.
Yet, they still leave much room for individual companies to develop their own policies around food safety that may be at odds with sound management of the land on which food is grown. Currently, some corporate food safety policies are causing serious harm in terms of how they are being interpreted on the ground in places such as the Salinas Valley in California – the nation’s salad bowl and the area near where the 2006 spinach e. coli outbreak occurred. There is an opportunity now for corporations to adopt practices that are good for farmers, consumers and the environment.
Food Safety Strategy Endangers Wildlife – And Humans
In the wake of the tragedy that killed five people and shut down the spinach industry in 2006, produce buyers swiftly began placing strict requirements on farmers to eliminate habitat that could potentially attract wildlife – deer, pigs, rodents, even birds and insects – to farm fields and serve as a potential source of contamination, even though there is no conclusive science that points to native wildlife harboring significant food safety risk.
The result in Salinas has been widespread removal of natural vegetation, draining and filling of wetlands and poisoning of animals – a transformation of a farming landscape once known for its conservation farming practices into a valley of apparently antiseptic fields.
This is of concern not only to people who enjoy wildlife but to farmers and even consumers because the tools farmers have used to tend their land in good health – using vegetated buffers near streams to filter fertilizer and pesticide run-off – are now reversed and pollutants and pathogens now go straight into water bodies such as the Salinas River, its estuaries and the iconic Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary which produces its own bounty of fish and seafood.
Evidence-based Risk Management Safeguards Farms And Human Health
Some farmers have tried to do the right thing by maintaining practices that balance food safety and sustainability but the pressure from buyers to remove everything that is natural is intense, and usually, non-negotiable.
Standing in the Salinas Valley, it’s difficult not to see the way food safety requirements have played out as the final step in turning farm fields into factories. To boot, asking farmers to implement these practices on the ground not only flies against their own knowledge of how to best manage their lands. It is also a considerable economic burden that adds to the list of pressures forcing some farmers to eventually sell their land and businesses.
A different future for the Salinas is possible. The Nature Conservancy has worked with the farming community and other partners to develop standards that are good for food safety and the environment, and are now seeking support from large retailers and restaurant companies to support these standards.
Buyers can take a step in the right direction by making sure their food safety requirements are based on evidence-based risk management. In practice this will mean that farmers can go back to farming within a landscape rather than avoiding it. This will not only make farmers’ lives easier but it will also ultimately help secure the food you and I want to put on our plates.
FDA Food Modernization Act
The Nature Conservancy’s Safe and Sustainable Report
About the Author:
Jennifer Biringer is a Senior Director of Working Lands for the The Nature Conservancy, where she leads the Conservancy’s efforts along California’s coast from Monterey to Santa Barbara counties in defining, implementing and exporting solutions that strike a balance between productive farming and healthy habitats. She has also been a Director at SustainAbility and Manager of the North American Forest and Trade at the World Wildlife Fund, among other positions.