Last year's food-related E. coli outbreaks brought questions about produce safety into the national spotlight. The Natural Foods Merchandiser gleaned perspectives from three prominent people in the natural foods industry about what can be done to increase produce safety and what might help raise consumer confidence levels.
Bob Scowcroft is executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif. Jean Halloran is the director of the Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y. Tonya Antle is vice president of organic sales at Earthbound Farm in San Juan Bautista, Calif.
The perception of safety is especially important in the natural food sector, Halloran says, "because people are paying extra money for what they perceive as value-added. That value, to a significant degree, is in the amount of safety."
Knowledge is power
Increased produce safety must begin with increased understanding of the areas of opportunity for contamination, from the farm, through the chain of custody, to the retailer, according to Scowcroft. One of the most basic and important places to focus, he says, is on water. "Enforcement of the Clean Water Act is a good idea." Best-management practices for dealing with animal waste are another area that he says deserves scrutiny.
"A few fringe entities seized the most recent round of food contamination and linked it to organics," he says. "But the fact of the matter is that the organic-systems approach has minimalized the kind of contamination that has occurred in agro-industrial systems." For instance, he points out that the organic community is the only one with actual rules surrounding raw and composting manure.
Antle agrees that more knowledge is needed. To that purpose, Earthbound Farm recently convened an advisory panel. "We've gathered some of the top scientists in the nation to help devise and implement a food-safety program and to continue the dialogue," she says. Those scientists include: Mansour Samadpour, Ph.D., a micro?biologist with the University of Washington; Michael Doyle, Ph.D., and Larry Beuchat, Ph.D., both from the Center for Food Safety and Quality Enhancement at the University of Georgia; Karl Matthews, Ph.D., of the Department of Food Science at Rutgers University; and Cliff Coles of California Microbiological Consulting. Doyle in particular "has been a regular critic of food safety in produce," Antle says. "We're glad to have his critical eye on our panel."
The panel will meet at least quarterly to review all of the company's procedures, including irrigation, soil amendments, sanitation, packaging and processing facilities.
All three people we spoke with agreed that more stringent regulations would improve produce safety. "The status quo is not acceptable," Antle says. "Prior methods were not enough."
"We need a new regulatory system with requirements for good agricultural practices on the farm and good manufacturing practices in the plants," says Halloran. For vegetable processing and packaging plants, she suggests a system similar to the one in place at meatpacking plants, with an increased number of control points. "Find out where contamination can come in, where cross-contamination can occur," she says. "Test as plants come in, as they go out and in between, especially if you have a washing process where vegetables end up in a bath together."
As for regulations for best practices for growers, the solution seems to lie in regional rules. "There's not a one-size-fits-all solution for agriculture," Scowcroft says. "Rules must be developed and applied by foodshed," he said, referring to food's various provenances. "That's how it's been done for organics, and it's worked very well."
"It's hard to imagine national requirements being successful," Halloran agrees. "There could be a federal mandate that the states address the problem. Then, regional inspectors can create their own regulations." She adds that the organic industry should analyze its products in regard to bacteriological hazards.
Co-opt the kids
Scowcroft explains that for decades, people have looked to others to come up with a solution to food safety, among other problems. "For the past 30 years, it's been 'better living through chemistry,'" he says. People looked to things like radiation to solve their problems for them. But now, attention must be given to the consumers' role in food safety, he says. "There needs to be an evolution in the way of thinking, that people can help solve this problem themselves by doing things like washing their vegetables," he says. "But it takes a long time to change that mindset."
One way to do it is to focus on children. "Bring home ec back into the school systems," Scowcroft says. Begin the interaction with food at an early age, "treating food with the respect that it deserves from a young age. Maybe it will rub off on the previous generation," he says.
A massive public relations campaign with "pictures of pretty leaves of spinach is not going to do any good," as far as increasing consumer confidence, Halloran says. Instead, "You must come out and say, 'Here's what the problem was, and here's what we're doing to make sure this doesn't happen again'—that we're testing every certain number of boxes, or inspecting every fence break, every leaf, every turd we find, what the solution is—showing that you're making a serious attack on the problem and creating real world change."
That is how Earthbound is attacking the issue, Antle says. The company developed a four-pronged approach to improving the safety of its produce: First, it's working with seed producers to test seeds for pathogens. Second, the company is taking "already-good agricultural practices to the next level." That includes increasing communication with growers and increasing the amount of preharvest testing. In a procedure new to the industry, Earthbound is also testing produce for E. coli and other pathogens immediately after harvesting; the produce is held from further processing until negative results come back 12 hours later. If a batch gets a 'presumed positive' result, it is tested again, and if a true positive presents, it's destroyed. It's "very cutting-edge," Antle says. Earthbound adds another post-manufacture, 12-hour test-and-hold cycle.
Halloran says it's equally important to publicize those changes. "Sometimes the industry's loath to talk about hazard avoidance because they don't want to acknowledge hazards exist. But by now, the public knows the hazards are there."
"Ultimately," she says, "these plans have to work. You can come up with the greatest [hazard avoidance] plan, but if we have 50 outbreaks in the next year, forget it. You can't just say 'trust us.'"
Honesty is the best policy
Transparency is critical, Scowcroft says. "If we discover something's not working, we need to be out there and be public about it," he says. "Nobody should be avoiding this conversation. Acknowledging what we don't know increases funding to increase what we do know."
"But consumers don't want too much information," Antle says. "They just want to trust that we're doing the right thing."
"We have one of the safest food systems in the world," she says. "The question is, how do we take it to the next level?"
Shara Rutberg is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 3/p. 72, 76