Dust, Water and Food Safety

By the end of 2016, our farm and every other farm growing fresh produce in the U.S. will be required by the Food and Drug Administration to comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act finalized last year.

This well-meaning legislation is based on the truly radical idea that farmers have as much control to prevent “contamination” of their crops as food manufacturers do. As such, we are fully liable for any illness caused by bacteria that ends up on our crops before they leave the farm.

Tasked with an essentially impossible task, the regulators came up with set of rules that range from the sensible to the completely absurd. Here at Terra Firma, and other farmers around the U.S., we are trying to figure how to comply.

One of the more sensible components of the law requires farmers to prove that their irrigation and wash water is not contaminated. Unfortunately, no one knows how clean irrigation water needs to be because no one has ever traced a food illness incident back to irrigation water. So the standards are not based on anything resembling science.

On our farm we have 8 different water sources: 2 that we use for washing produce, and 6 for irrigation. Each of these must now be tested at least 4 times annually at a cost of $90 per test. We previously had tested our wash water wells once per year, and knew they would comply. But we were happy to find that our primary source of irrigation water — Lake Berryessa water delivered via Putah Creek — easily met the FDA’s standards.

At the other end of the sensibility spectrum lie the rules that I hinted at in last week’s newsletter: those that see the soil on our farm as a contaminant that must be avoided. This idea is crazy in so many ways it’s hard to imagine it would pass a legal challenge, much less pass the test of scientific scrutiny. And yet, regulators forged ahead in their quest to achieve the impossible.

I’ll just give a few examples: If a carrot, just dug from the soil, falls onto the ground, it must not be picked up again. Harvest containers that are used to hold wet, muddy kale must be free of dirt before they can be used. Flatbed trucks that spend all day driving on dusty dirt roads must be swept each day before using. Knives that are used to cut the (underground) roots of leeks must be sterilized every day.

Each and every one of these standards must be in writing, and our employees must be trained to follow them — despite the fact that they may be impossible to follow, completely absurd, or both.

Dirt on produce is not causing an epidemic of food born illness. If it were, millions of people would be sick every day from their lettuce and carrots. And the only effective way to keep dirt off produce completely would be to mandate that it be grown only hydroponically, in sealed greenhouses.

The new FDA rules are not going to eliminate unfortunate outbreaks of illness that occur when a pathogenic strain of E. Coli or Salmonella get into a batch of salad greens, or keep people with compromised immune systems from getting sick. The simple fact is that people who eat more fruits and vegetables are healthier and live longer on average than people who don’t. I hope that some of the millions of dollars appropriated to study food borne illnesses are going towards studies look at the inoculating effect of eating fresh produce.

Unfortunately, the new food safety laws will have a very predictable unintended consequence: making it even harder for smaller farms to complete with corporate ones. Earthbound has an entire Food Safety Department and a budget to go along with it. Farms like Terra Firma don’t have the resources to do that, but the standards — and the massive pile of paperwork they require — are the same for everyone.

Terra Firma has dozens and dozens of subscribers who have been eating our produce — and our microbes — for ten years or more. Some since before they were born. We like to think our fruits and veggies have made you healthier in every way, right down to your immune systems.

Thanks,

Pablito

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