Most Viewed Stories
Local farmers ensuring food safety long before federal bill
The Yuma Sun is taking a behind-the-scenes look at agriculture in Yuma. This story is one in an ongoing series.
Even before President Obama signed a new food safety law on Jan. 4, 2011, Yuma-area farmers had been voluntarily taking steps to ensure the healthy vegetables they produce don't end up being a health risk instead.
It all starts at ground zero with the soil and water that nurture the plants from seed to maturity. It includes the workers and equipment used in the fields to plant, cultivate and harvest the crops. And it extends to the packing houses and salad plants where the vegetables are cooled, processed and readied for distribution to consumers across the country.
With a new company in town, it even includes sterilization of the semi-trailers that haul the thousands of cartons each day to their destinations.
There's a lot at stake for the multimillion-dollar industry that goes beyond the bottom line for farmers and shippers. They also want the assurance that the food they produce is the safest and healthiest it can be from field to fork.
No one wants a repeat of a foodborne illness tied to consumption of a contaminated fresh vegetable.
Congress passed and Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act in early in 2011 that goes into effect next spring, setting in motion comprehensive measures to prevent the problems that make people sick. It calls for new safety requirements for some fruits and vegetables, authorizes the Food and Drug Administration to order a recall of non-meat food items, increases inspections of domestic and foreign food facilities, and requires farms and processors to maintain records so foods can be traced back.
“The impact to our local area growers will be somewhat minimal since the fresh produce industry itself has much stricter policies and guidelines already in place than those recently signed into law,” said Kurt Nolte, executive director of the Yuma County Cooperative Extension.
Not long after the E. coli outbreak in bagged spinach in 2006, California and Arizona each came up with leafy greens marketing agreements that established certain guidelines to prevent contamination in vegetables while growing and processing them. The agreements have served as models for other states.
In addition, the Arizona Department of Agriculture already has Good Agricultural Practices and Good Handling Practices training programs for those who need it, Nolte noted. Training also is available through the Yuma County Cooperative Extension Office, and Nolte can be used as a contact for the training and integration of food safety programming in a farming operation.
One of the biggest challenges facing farmers is preventing contamination of their crops from animal waste, whether left by wild or domestic animals in the field or along a road or canal bank that is then tracked or washed into the field, Nolte said. Animal waste can contain E. coli bacteria that has been linked to foodborne illnesses in humans.
One simple measure farmers have adopted in recent years is to erect fencing, from chicken wire to black plastic, around their vegetable fields to keep out animals, he said. Fences are more often found near heavily traveled roads, urban areas where children may play and people walk their pets and close to desert native habitat.
Nolte said the public can help by staying out of fields and keeping their children and pets out of them. And it's important for people to clean up after their pets when walking them, especially along canal banks and irrigation ditches.
Other measures outlined in the Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement address the cleaning of farm equipment, worker hygiene and irrigation water monitoring.
And there's a new breed of agriculture professionals who oversee all aspects of fresh vegetable production on the farms where they work to ensure food safety.
One project in the works is development of a new coring knife for cutting the vegetables, something of a rudimentary design with a circular blade welded onto a lettuce knife to remove cores in the field for salad products, Nolte said. The welded part has a rough surface E. coli bacteria can cling to, causing possible contamination. So a new knife is being designed with a smooth, seamless corer.
Researchers in their labs also are working on projects to reduce the chance of contamination. For example, Sadhana Raishankar, a microbiology professor for the University of Arizona, has done work on edible films that contain essential oils and other plant extracts that inactivate E. coli and salmonella on various foods.
Nolte said there has been only one incident of foodborne illness traced to a Yuma-area field. That occurred in the spring of 2010 in a romaine crop grown in April “at the very end of the season” in the Wellton area.
“Data suggests the grower followed all guidelines,” Nolte said. An investigation traced the probable cause to a leaking septic tank in a vehicle park some distance away.
“It was an isolated incident and handled rapidly. From that incident, our charge is to research the risk of septic tanks leaking deep underground that may leach into a dirt irrigation ditch.”
Nolte concluded: “Production as we know it has changed dramatically with the scares about foodborne illnesses and the adoption of new growing standards.”
Joyce Lobeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6853. Find her on Facebook at Facebook.com/jlobeck or on Twitter at @YSJoyceLobeck.