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Download WFA's Full Comments to the FDA on What Should Be Included in Food Safety Produce Standards Here

To see two other sets of excellent comments,download:

Community Alliance with Family Farmers' comments

The Nature Conservancy's comments

Wild Farm Alliance's Position
WFA encourages FDA to create risk management assessment standards that allow for the co-management of food safety and conservation. Wildlife and their habitat are a low food safety risk (see appendix I). Moreover, the conservation and restoration of grasses and wetlands that filter E. coli pathogens, and the promotion of diverse soil microorganisms that are antagonistic to these pathogens, increase the safety of food. By building co-management into the produce standards, FDA will not create conflicts with the Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Federal and State water quality mandates, the National Organic Program rule, or the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that provides over $4 billion each year for Farm Bill programs.

Standards Must Interface Well with the National Organic Program (NOP) Rule
The NOP requires that organic farm production practices maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil, water, wetlands, woodlands and wildlife. The definition of organic farming is a production system that is managed to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.

In addition, organic farmers can not be expected to decrease biological diversity because they rely on it to help them grow their crops. By installing native plants that support natural enemy insects, they manage pest insect outbreaks. Hedgerows and natural riparian areas also support pollinators at a time when US farms are experiencing a pollination crisis. The more farmers can do to provide a diverse diet of pollen and nectar, the better the health and survival of honeybee and wild pollinators will be. Organic farmers depend on bird and bat boxes and raptor roosts that encouraged predatory birds and bats to help keep pest insect and rodent populations under control.

What often gets overlooked, is that the soil on organic farms is alive, diverse and resilient. Farmers feed the soil with cover crops and compost, and do not hamper the survival of beneficial microorganisms by using acidic fertilizers or toxic fumigants. This is important for food safety considerations since research shows E. coli pathogens decline more rapidly in soils with a large diversity microorganisms rather than in sterile soils, and this is due to antagonistic interactions with indigenous life in the soil. FDA should ensure that organic farmers are allowed to co-manage the ecological services nature provides with food safety standards at the same time that they are complying with the NOP.

Standards Must Incorporate Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Federal and State Water Quality Mandates
WFA is located near the Salinas Valley of California and has seen first hand how native habitat was removed because of misguided food safety requirements. Over a mile of riparian trees and shrubs, one hundred feet wide, was bulldozed along the Salinas River (see: www.wildfarmalliance.org/Press Room/press_room_destruction.htm) in 2008. Because more than 2/3 of the federally-listed rare species are found on private land, private property is very important in the management and conservation of habitat for fish, wildlife and plants. Riparian areas are critical to the movement of migratory birds. While most farmers consider themselves good stewards of the land, Salinas Valley farmers under great pressure from food safety auditors and their buyers reported in a survey that they had adopted measures to actively deter or eliminate wildlife on huge acreages (bare ground buffers were used on about 92,000 acres, trapping on 87,000 acres, poisoned bait stations on 108,000 acres, and fencing on 66,000 acres). FDA should be careful not to forces farmers to make decisions between complying with food safety rules and illegally taking out habitat.

Clean water helps to support rare species, and human uses. Water quality protections are mandated by the Clean Water Act, and in California, farmers are specifically required to address runoff by the State Water Resources Control Board. Conservation practices typically used for water quality benefits include grassing ditches, using native shrubs and trees along waterways to stabilize soils, and installing sediment basins to capture runoff before it leaves the field. Food safety auditors pressured Salinas Valley farmers to remove conservation practices for water quality/wildlife habitat on 30,000 acres, and we don’t want to see this happen nationwide. Food safety produce standards should not trump the Clean Water Act, a state’s farm water quality regulations, or the Endangered Species Act.

As shown in the above survey, food safety auditors are known to broadly target all wildlife and their habitat, without without scientific justification or understanding the co-benefits of conservation practices with regard to food safety and the environment. Unlike California pest control advisors who work with farmers, they are not certified. Food safety auditors should be certified so that they do not require farmers to make costly and environmental damaging mistakes, and so they uniformly address the same issues. A program could be modeled after California’s Pest Control Advisor License (www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/license/adviser.htm). FDA should require all food safety auditors to be certified, and to take continuing education classes that keep them abreast of new information. Part of the educational program should teach about agricultural natural resource protections that reduce the incidence of pathogens, and the multiple other benefits to having conservation practices.

Standards Must Accommodate Natural Resource Conservation Efforts
We run the risk of reaching for an unattainable and indeed risky “sterile” growing environment for the nation’s food crops, at great cost to farmers, consumers, and wildlife. We could instead build upon conservation practices already underway on many farms to enhance the effective ecosystem services provided by a healthy growing environment while ensuring the safe growing of food. Grass and wetlands are known to filter out 70-99% of E. coli so that it does not spread throughout the landscape. Larger vegetation, such as hedgerows and windbreaks, filter dust and since E. coli O157 can be carried on dust, they too serve to reduce pathogen transfer. The billions of dollars spent by USDA NRCS’s and others’ on farm conservation should augment FDA standards, not be at odds with them.

WFA recommends that FDA use the guidance from the Association of Food and Drug Officials’ (AFDO) code on animal presence in order to determine how best to address the conflicts of conservation and food safety (see: www.afdo.org). The question of whether animals are present or not is at the heart of the conflict. By using AFDO’s common sense code, which is not overly prescriptive, site-specific conditions can be addressed through a risk assessment strategy. The code states:

"The responsible party shall assess the impact of domestic and wild animal activity on potential for pathogen contamination of produce, considering the crop characteristics, type and number of animals, pathogens of concern, nearness to the growing field, proximity to harvest, and other relevant factors."
One more factor should be added to this list: conservation practices used to reduce indirect spread of pathogens.

FDA should take this nuanced approach of using the AFDO code that allows for the diversity of farm situations and animal presence around the country.

The following examines how a farmer can use a decision-tree approach with the AFDO code to deal with relevant issues of their operation while producing safe food.

Impact of Animal Presence When Considering Crop Characteristics
• Does the crop have a kill step, such as cooking?
--- If so, animal presence is not a risk.

• Is the raw eaten crop field packed, or is it rinsed with water before it is packed?
--- If field packed, it has less of a risk of spreading contamination than if water is used.
--- If crop is rinsed, consider planting in an area of reduced risk or use hedgerows and windbreaks to buffer against neighboring uses.

Impact of Animal Presence When Considering Type of Animals and Pathogens of Concern
• Are cattle present? (Cattle are considered high-risk species because of their high probability to carry E. coli pathogens).
--- If so, are adequate fences present to keep animals out of growing areas; is a grassed buffer needed between the livestock and the produce operations; or is a ditch required to divert runoff from livestock to produce operations?

• Are animals present that serve as E. coli or Salmonella pathogen vectors between contaminated areas created by human activity and the farm (including but not limited to non-field rodents, feral pigsand some birds)? Potential sources of contamination include use of untreated or improperly treated manure; large concentrated animal operations; nearby waste disposal areas, and heavily grazed areas.
--- If so, either discourage animals, grow a crop with a kill step, or do not grow raw eaten produce near a polluted area.

• Are native wildlife species present?
--- If so, they are a low risk. (Limited studies have shown that the majority of native wildlife populations have a low probability of carrying of E. coli and Salmonella pathogens – zero to less than three percent.)

Impact of Animal Presence When Considering Number of Animals
Is there unusually heavy wildlife activity in the field?
--- If so, are any of the following steps taken to reduce their numbers?
------ * Animals are discouraged with motion sensors, loud noises, etc.
------ * Animals are attracted to other areas with food, water, etc.
------ * If fencing is used, it only encloses the growing fields, not the whole farm, so that wildlife can still move through the landscape.
------ * If poison is used as a last resort, it does not accumulate in the animal causing a secondary kill, and it is not placed near a waterway where it can cause pollution.

• Is there unusually heavy non-native feral pig activity in the field?
--- If so, consider hunting to reduce their numbers?

Impact of Animal Presence When Considering Proximity to Harvest
• Was the field flooded exposing it to pathogens from high-risk animals, or was it grazed before the crop was planted?
--- If so, has the field been properly tilled to incorporate any pathogens present and has an adequate time period occurred to inactivate them since the ground was tilled before planting?

• Have any animal tracks or feces been found since the crop was planted?
--- If so, has it been determined where the tracks lead, and if feces are found, has the crop been flagged for not harvesting in and around that spot?

Impact of Animal Presence When Considering Nearness to The Growing Field
• Do animals pass through a polluted area as described above before arriving at a produce field being harvested for raw consumption?
--- If so, see discussions above about reducing animal numbers

• Do native wildlife pass through conservation plantings, riparian zones or other wildlife habitats?
--- If so, they pose a low risk.

Impact of Animal Presence When Considering Conservation Practices Used to Reduce Indirect Spread Of Pathogens
• Are conservation practices funded by the Farm Bill, such as vegetative buffer strips, grasses, and wetlands, used to help filter out contamination in overland water flows from pastures, livestock feedlots, and manure storage areas?

• Are hedgerows and windbreaks used to block pathogen-laden dust coming from roads, and animal loafing areas, compost operations?

Standards Must Be Able to Accommodate All Farm Sizes and Crop Mixes
FDA should take into consideration the fact that small farms are more constrained on their land options. Requiring any buffer zone between crops and natural areas would force farmers to take out habitat, some of which could be supporting rare species and important ecological functions. Overly large sterile buffer zones near other areas, such as grazing, compost facilities, and structures, could make small farmers reduce their production acreage so much so that it puts them out of business. Large farmers on the other hand could decide to grow something else near those areas, since they have many parcels to choose from. Instead, FDA should require hedgerows or windbreaks be planted in lieu of large bare ground buffers, where feasible.

FDA should create general standards that work for multiple crops grown in the same location so that farmers producing a diversity of crops do not have to fill out separate forms. For instance, farmers growing unprocessed leafy greens, tomatoes, and melons should not have to fill out and comply with FDA’s guidance documents on these crops. Since it is very likely that FDA will create new guidances for other crops as well, the paperwork burden would be untenable for small farmers. While these guidances are just that and not standards, they are required de facto since proactive farmers will feel forced to fill out the paperwork in case they ever have a food safety incident and end up in court. FDA should not hamper a farmer’s ability to spread her/his financial risk by growing more than just a single crop, or make their marketing more difficult. “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” campaigns around the country are encouraging consumers to eat lots of fresh produce and shop at farmers’ markets and local stores. Small farmers often sell a diversity of crops through these channels because they can optimize sales by selling small amount of many types of produce. Growing multiple crops also allows for crop rotation, which ensures that the soil is not overly depleted of certain nutrients, and also reduces the potential for insect buildup. As a result, there is less need for fertilizers and pesticides, and healthier food is produced. FDA should create general standards for a diversity of crops grown in the same location.

Standards Must Address Industrial Leafy Green Harvesting and Processing Issues
More surfaces for microbial invasion are present in pre-cut and pre-chopped leafy greens than in bunched spinach, or whole lettuce heads. Since salad mix, baby spinach, and large portions of iceberg lettuce are bagged, an ideal environment exists for pathogens to grow. According to Community Alliance for Family Farmers’ analysis of data, between 1999 and 2008, all of the E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks related to spinach and lettuce that created serious illness were linked to fresh-cut products in sealed bags. The processing system should remove pathogens, not spread them. A greater risk occurs in the processing plant than on the farm. In addition, industrially mowing leafy greens from the ground endangers nearby frogs that may stray from their habitat. The large salad mower itself is not hygienic; when in operation it builds up a slime similar to the bottom of a lawn mower. The system of harvesting needs to be redesigned to quickly find and avoid frogs, and to prevent the buildup of slimy residues on the salad mower. Volume also matters. The output of 26 million servings of leafy greens every week from a large processing plant, like the one that caused the 2006 E. coli 0157:H7 contaminated spinach to affect consumers in 28 states, is far riskier than a small farm processing operation. As well, shelf life should be based on safety, not profitability. Decreasing shelf life for bagged products, that now stretch to as much as 17 days, would not only cut down on the opportunities for pathogens to grow but also cut down on nutritional losses. FDA should focus its efforts mainly on large processors, not the farm, require leafy green harvesters to be redesigned, and shorten the allowed shelf life for perishable leafy greens.

Standards Must Be Flexible
FDA should build a program that can accommodate new information as research studies enlighten us how food can be more safely grown.



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