A new stage of the food safety debate examines the merits and faults of organic, commerical and locally grown produce
Despite arguments that organic, local, industrially processed and conventional foods differ in terms of food safety, retailers, growers and industry groups all agree that the issue is one of mutual concern. All growers can and should be producing and taking necessary measurements to ensure the safety of food, regardless of what type of grower they are.
However, the debate over which types of food are safe has intensified during the past year. With recent large-scale recalls, ranging from the Elizabeth, N.J.-based Topps recall of 21.7 million-plus pounds of meat to the spinach E. coli outbreak in the fall of 2006, which sickened more than 200 and killed three, along with contamination scares involving imported seafood, toothpaste and toys this year, consumers are paying more attention to what they're buying. And many are questioning which is safer: local, organic or commercial products.
Varying factors are involved with every grower, regardless of size, and all parties have the intention of providing consumers with safe food, yet all growers face more or less equal exposure to food safety risks and challenges.
Kathy Means, vice president of government relations at the Produce Marketing Association, Washington, said no one is off the hook when it comes to food safety, and that it's something every grower and company must have.
“Everybody can have a food safety system, whether they're small, large, national or global,” Means said.
“There are ways to produce safe food, and everyone is responsible for doing so. Just because you're small doesn't mean you're off the hook, and just because you're bigger doesn't mean you can't do it.”
Jill Hollingsworth, vice president of food safety programs for the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, agreed.
“Regardless of the origin or the type of growing practices, whether something is grown conventional, organic, local, whether it's manufactured at a greater distance by a larger company or whether it's exports or imports, really should not make any difference in the safety of the food,” Hollingsworth said.
“The food that comes into retail to be sold should all be safe for consumption. One of the things that we would certainly want consumers to understand is that the choices they make might be for a variety of reasons: They could be choices for quality or just a personal preference, concerns about the environment or sustainability. All of those are good reasons to make choices, but they should not feel that one item is more or less safe in a retail store.”
Yet recent news is clearly making shoppers concerned about the origins of their food. According to a survey by The Leopold Center, Ames, Iowa, 85% and 88% of respondents, respectively, perceived local and regional food systems to be somewhat safe or very safe, compared with 70% who perceived the U.S. food system to be safe and only 12% for the global food system. That may be encouraging news for U.S. growers, but for retailers, it's a daunting statistic.
Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets agreed that food from a local or smaller farm may not necessarily be safer than food from a larger grower that's distributed nationally. However, they say the traceability factor of local foods really makes a difference in comparison to foods from larger growers and distribution companies.
“When you're talking about food safety, it may not necessarily be that smaller farms or local farms or the food from those farms is any safer, but it's the ability to trace the food that enhances consumer safety,” said Trudy Bialic, spokeswoman for the eight-store natural, organic and locally grown food co-op.
“I think it's more easily done when you know where your produce is exactly coming from — and if you have smaller circles of dependence, rather than huge national or even global circles of dependence. We kept seeing this over and over again — look at the amount of spinach and meat that's been recalled. Now, you know that all of that might not be contaminated, but because they can't trace exactly what the farm of origin was, they recall everything, so the cost is much greater and the risk to consumers is greater.”
Slow Food USA, an advocacy group for local and heritage foods based in Brooklyn, N.Y., agreed.
“There are many reassurances that can be gained, as a consumer, by buying from a small farm, one of them being that there is a single, identifiable source for food,” Jerusha Klemperer, spokeswoman for Slow Food USA, told SN.
“Part of what happens with industrially processed food is that it pulls from many sources: A hamburger patty could contain meat from several hundred different animals, a bag of spinach could contain leaves from several different farms, and so on. Aside from the disturbing implications of this in a philosophical sense, it is a logistic problem when it comes time to get to the root of a contamination problem. Which farm is having an outbreak?”
The traceability argument can also be made for organics, noted Bialic. The organic certification program provides a paper trail back to the farm of origin, as well as the practices and the dates of applications of different composts, fertilizers or different treatments that were done at the farm, she said.
Yet new technologies are rapidly helping commercial growers close this gap. Innovations like the GS1 DataBar, for example, are being improved for use at the retail level, allowing both retailers and shoppers to see when and where individual items were grown and harvested.
Organic produce has faced its own share of arguably unfounded criticism, though. In the early days after last September's spinach-borne E. coli outbreak, it was widely believed that the source of the outbreak was an organic spinach operation. Those concerns proved to be unfounded, but several editorials were written in newspapers throughout the country questioning the safety of using composted manure on organic fields, rather than synthetic fertilizers.
“There are some who would say organics are safer and some who would say they're not safer — that you're using organic materials, meaning manure, and if you're not using it properly, you have a greater chance of getting sick from organic,” Means said.
“None of that is true. Organics and conventionally produced products are equally safe when they're produced correctly.”
Charles Benbrook, chief scientist of The Organic Center, Foster, R.I., and former executive director of the Board of Agriculture at the National Academy of Sciences, agreed, noting that the use of compost and animal manures by organic farmers is heavily regulated and addressed in considerable detail in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program.
“I have to say that The Organic Center and many other organizations that work on the science behind organic food production believe that the NOP compost regulations are out of date and need to be tightened — we've had that in our reports — but I'm much more confident that organic farmers are applying animal manures and compost made from manure in ways that minimize any risk of bacterial contamination of the food,” Benbrook said.
“It does happen sometimes, and it's going to continue to happen, but I think the impacts of organic food systems on reducing the risk of bacterial pathogens in food is actually a far more important contribution to overall food safety than the occasional instances when improperly composted animal manure may pose some risks.”
Organic growers, however, do not use pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, and for many organic consumers, the absence of those chemicals has become the very definition of food safety.
“The consumer surveys are very consistent and show that about two-thirds of the people who are drawn to organic food or farmers markets or community-supported agriculture are motivated by a desire to avoid pesticides and other chemical contaminants in food,” Benbrook said.
The definition of food safety is multifaceted, Michelle Barry, president of Bellevue, Wash.-based research consultancy Tinderbox, told SN. For example, some consumers think of food safety strictly on the basis of trying to avoid foodborne illnesses such as E. coli, whereas other consumers think of food safety in terms of avoiding pesticides, hormones and chemicals.
“It's these varying definitions that influence consumers' perceptions of what's safe,” Barry said.
“For example, for those who orient more strongly to safety in terms of natural and fresh, organic and local are perceived as safer. However, for those who orient more strongly to safety in terms of avoiding foodborne illnesses, conventional or mass-produced is typically perceived as safer, given that many consumers assume that large corporations are consistent and highly regulated.”
Advocates for local foods, however, say that due to the shorter distances to travel and the minimized time between harvest and consumption, there are fewer windows of opportunity for local produce to become contaminated. In addition, many of these consumers are now arguing that packaging and handling play a major role in how pathogens spread through a product.
“Oftentimes, small growers who sell locally sell through farmers' markets and don't package their produce. I think that many studies now have demonstrated that the confined environment of a plastic bag is a breeding ground for E. coli and other bacteria,” said Erin Barnett, director at Local Harvest, Santa Cruz, Calif.
Benbrook said he believes that there is less risk associated with local produce because of the fact that a significant percentage of food poisonings due to bacteria in fact occur because of how food — whether it's organic or conventional — is handled by consumers or by food-service workers after it's moved through the whole production, packaging and distribution chain.
“I think one of the big differences is that the produce grown by backyard gardeners and small-scale farmers tends to get consumed very quickly after it's picked,” Benbrook said.
“If there is bacteria, whether it's salmonella or E. coli 0157, that gets onto some of that produce, if the produce is washed and consumed within hours of being picked, which is often the case, the bacteria doesn't have enough time to proliferate like it did in that fresh-cut packaged product.”
Benbrook also noted the importance of maintaining standards throughout the cold chain, because any breaks, including those from the supermarket to the consumer's home, present an opportunity for bacteria to multiply.
“This applies to all foods, essentially fruits, vegetables, milk and meat,” Benbrook added.
“If the food is handled correctly, it's likely to pose fewer food safety risks than food that has a long chain and many days between when it's harvested and when it's consumed. This is just common sense as to why all fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products and meat have a ‘best used by’ date. They have that because food in fresh form is subject to bacterial contamination and bacterial proliferation.”
However, everyone — growers, handlers, distributors, retailers and consumers — is equally susceptible to and responsible for bacterial contamination, he noted.
“I think there is some potential for problems down the road if we don't recognize that where there's bacteria, there are going to be food safety challenges.”
Regardless of the size of their operations, growers and companies should have the necessary control points, as applicable to their operations, in place to ensure food safety, industry experts agreed. But new regulations, including regulations developed by the produce industry itself, are a concern to small growers, who say they follow Good Agricultural Practices as a matter of course but can't necessarily afford to pay for new levels of oversight.
“I think that the large producers, because they do have challenges — they're handling large volumes of product, probably in facilities that are moving faster — but because of that, they're also building into their systems controls that take that into account,” Hollingsworth said.
“A large manufacturer or processing plant is probably going to have numerous controls in place, testing procedures, monitoring water quality and so on. So, they realize that by the nature of their size and complexity, they've added new challenges to their business, but also it's that very same side of complexity that allows them to put the controls in place that they need.”
Means concurred, stating that food safety operations and programs will be scalable to the size of the grower or the company.
“There doesn't need to be any difference when it comes to food safety between smaller growers and larger distribution companies,” Means said.
“The difference would probably be scale, but everyone should have a worker hygiene program; it doesn't matter if you're large or small. If you're large, that may mean a more formal training program that you may have to take different places to train people, and if you're small, it may mean having to gather everyone in a conference room to educate them about it, but everybody needs to have that worker hygiene program.”
The kinds of operations local and large-scale growers have are going to vary, but all should have access to resources, according to Hollingsworth.
“You're probably not going to have a local grower — by the very nature that he's a local grower — have a great big manufacturing facility where he's cutting and processing a lot of products and bagging them, so by their very nature, their businesses are different,” Hollingsworth said.
“But there are tremendous resources to growers, even the smallest local growers, through agriculture departments, extension agents or local county agents, who are all there to provide all growers, regardless of their size, with the basics of Good Agricultural Practices, and I just can't imagine someone who would want to sell products in a local market without having awareness of that.”
Holly Givens of the Organic Trade Association, Greenfield, Mass., agreed that it's important that all farmers use Good Agricultural Practices, and that a review of recall notices for products with microbial or chemical contamination would not differentiate between categories of establishments by size or scale.
“Organic farmers and handlers must follow all federal, state and local food safety requirements, no matter what the size of the operation or where the products are sold,” Givens said.
“The Organic Trade Association supports organic agriculture in all its forms — small farms that sell only to the neighbors, midsize farms that sell regionally, and large farms with many more customers, and every size and business structure and business plan that people can think of. Not every farmer wants to have the marketing challenges of selling directly to the retail market. Having a variety of viable options gives farmers more freedom to have successful businesses.”
But proponents of local food believe that voluntary regulations like the California Good Agricultural Practices and the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement could ultimately make it more difficult for small growers, despite the booming popularity of locally grown foods.
“My sense is that the typical small-farmer response to a regulation of GAPs is, ‘I follow GAPs already as a matter of course, and I don't have time for one more level of certification,’ whereas a company has the resources to hire somebody whose sole job is to take care of all that paperwork,” Barnett said.
“On a small farm, the farmer is the farmer, the marketer, the business person, the PR guy and everything, so I don't think that we'll see a move toward requiring that kind of certification in the farmers' market world.”
Klemperer was more emphatic, arguing that these new regulations could potentially destroy the state's family farm economy, and said that the regulations should be focused exclusively on large, commercial operations.
“According to the Community Alliance of Family Farmers' analysis of data provided by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, since 1999, 80% of E. coli outbreaks in leafy greens in California, such as spinach, have been traced to processed, bagged salad,” Klemperer said.
“Therefore, guidelines should be focusing on processed greens, not unprocessed leafy greens. The protocols that would be enforced by this legislation could be financially crippling to small and medium-sized farmers.”
Benbrook said that the recent outbreaks have placed pressure on Washington for new legislation and regulations. The Organic Center and people working in food safety are worried that some of the new initiatives are going to produce a false sense of security.
“The big problem with getting the government involved in trying to regulate food safety is that the places and the ways that food safety risks find their way into agricultural systems are so complex and variable — tied to the unique combinations of soils, weather, facilities, barns, planting systems, how food is harvested and controlled. To ask and expect a government agency [to help] often delivers far less progress than one might like,” he said.
Bialic said she believes a seal of approval, like the one the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement has implemented, will not address or contain problems on a national level.
“It's kind of like they're going to do the best they can with the system they have in place, but I would say that it's the whole system that should be scrutinized and broken down into smaller circles, into smaller local food systems, locally controlled food systems,” Bialic said.
“That means more local purchasing, even for the big chains. They should be purchasing more from local producers and providers and have a traceback [system] rather than having everything come from Cargill or Earthbound Farms.”
Rita Postell, spokeswoman for Charleston, S.C.-based Piggly Wiggly stores, said that she feels “local farmers have a huge vested interest with being in compliance,” but that it's necessary to balance local and industrially produced foods because of consumer demand.
“The local farmers feel good about what they do and have a bigger stake in the results,” Postell added.
“These same products feed their families and their livelihood. Our customers like the concept of local support whenever available. In our area there are many products that are not grown locally, so our guests expect our company to purchase from larger distribution companies for their convenience. There is no easy answer when the industry is dealing with supply and demand.”
Means agreed that retailers love local foods, but cannot always rely solely on them, because consumers want variety. Being able to offer consumers choices in the marketplace is very important — having organic, local, conventional and imports.
“If you want your kids to eat fruit, and grapes are their favorite, then you need to have imports to be able to give those kids grapes throughout the year. Being able to supply consumers' needs is very important to retailers and their marketing strategy. So it behooves us to make sure that whatever people are doing, they're doing it safely, because they do want to have organic, local and imports — all of those things are important,” Means said.
“I think it's irresponsible when one area slams another as if it's going to produce bad food, which happens on both sides. That erodes consumer confidence for everything.
“Smaller growers may say that larger growers are going to make more people sick. Larger growers may say that smaller growers aren't following GAPs and they're going to make people sick. There is something to the larger distribution network if there is a problem, but we don't want to be having problems — we need prevention to ensure that every bite, every time, is delicious and safe regardless of where it's grown and how it's grown. That's our key contention.”