Growers Tell It Like It Is With Food Safety

And Authors Advocate for More Support and Protections for Growers and More Ecologically-based Pathogen Management

Author: Patrick Baur

Outbreaks of foodborne illnesses pose serious public health risks worldwide, and such outbreaks are increasingly linked to fruits and vegetables. Scientific investigation has traced the source of some illnesses to microbial contamination that occurred on the farm. With the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011, farms are expected to follow many new best practices to promote food safety in the growing environment. Private industry groups have also championed food safety reforms, creating further food safety standards and requirements that farmers need to follow in order to sell their products.

Against this backdrop, a newly published free-to-read article examines how growers in California’s Central Coast are responding to food safety reforms, and evaluates the implications for regional sustainability. Based on interviews with 55 growers in the region, the study analyzed how farmers perceive the efficacy of food safety reform in mitigating foodborne illness risks and how their perceptions compared to the state of scientific evidence.

The study found several areas of troubling disconnect between the stated intentions of food safety reform and actual outcomes on the ground. First, although some food safety requirements genuinely reduce risk to consumers, others appear to be largely “for show”, leading to situations in which growers question the overall legitimacy and validity of food safety reform. Second, food safety pressures to control human pathogens at the farm level can and do conflict with some management strategies to promote biological diversity on farms. In particular, conflict arises around wild animals and natural habitat.

Last, but very important, the study found that farmers bear disproportionate liability for food safety outcomes relative to their means and decision-making power. This burden raises barriers to entry into agriculture and puts extra stress on smaller-scale or otherwise disadvantaged farms. Disproportionate costs, in turn, exacerbate economic consolidation, threatening the long-term socioeconomic health of the Central Coast region.

These disconnects point to a pressing need to shift current food safety approaches away from a narrow emphasis on isolated controls and individual grower compliance. Rather, the authors propose an integrated perspective that proactively evaluates food system vulnerabilities and seeks to cultivate resilience to pathogenic risks across the production environment.

Toward this end, the study recommends that public subsidies—including support for losses incurred during product recalls—should be instituted to more equitably distribute the monetary costs of safe food. In a similar vein, they suggest that farmers who have complied with applicable food safety standards in good faith should receive legal protections to buffer them from the threat of lawsuits. Alleviating some of their fear over liability is expected to free farmers to concentrate more fully on evidence-based practices to improve food safety.

Lastly, the study suggests a need to move past the current overemphasis on controlling biodiversity by expanding the on-farm food safety “toolkit” to include a wider array of ecologically based pathogen management methods. Access to these alternatives would afford farmers the flexibility to pursue food safety in ways that align more closely with their specific farm needs. The authors acknowledge that more research, especially in active collaboration with a diversity of farmers, is needed to establish best agroecological practices to promote food safety, and highlight specific directions for future research to fill this knowledge gap.