Blevins: Throwing out the produce with the floodwaters

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Lynn Zanardi Blevins, epidemiologist and GAPs program director at University of Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Quite a few Vermont-grown potatoes, winter squash, carrots and sweet potatoes won’t make it to the dinner table this Thanksgiving. When the floodwaters of Tropical Storm Irene poured over many Vermont farms, much of the produce left behind was deemed unsuitable for human consumption.

While some produce is rotting in the fields, many seemingly undamaged winter squash are awaiting the compost pile and perfectly plump potatoes will be plowed under. The unfortunate fate of these vegetables in their late-August glory is a mix of the growers’ concern for public health and their willingness to abide by the law.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prohibits farmers from selling edible crops that come in contact with flood water. Unlike the uneven impacts that the flood had on fields throughout the state, the FDA’s regulation is black and white. It doesn’t matter if your fields are upstream or downstream, or if there is a blown out fuel tank in your field or not. If flood water touched the edible portion of a crop, it isn’t fit for consumption.

While this is economically painful for growers, science backs up what appears to some to be an extreme measure on the FDA’s part to protect public health. Consider the possible contaminants in flood waters, which fall into two main categories: biological (microbial) and chemical.

Microbial pathogens that can harm human health — bacteria, viruses, and parasites — are almost certainly in all surface waters after a major flood. The microbes come from overflowing septic systems, wastewater treatment facilities, farm manure storage and disturbed soils containing animal feces. Many of these microbes survive for weeks in both water and soil. They can live and even multiply on produce. Some are capable of causing acute food-borne illnesses, outbreaks and deaths in very low doses.

Chemical contaminants are too numerous to list, but some that pose a threat to public health are heavy metals, hydrocarbons, pesticides and industrial chemicals such as PCBs. While acute illness from chemical contaminants is much less likely than from microbial pathogens, long-term health effects are a potential concern.

Testing the flooded produce to prove its safety isn’t as obvious a solution as it might appear. Questions surface about which microbes and chemicals to test for and how many samples are needed to yield results that are meaningful. Contaminants can be deposited unevenly on fields; a hot spot missed during sampling may result in unsafe produce hiding behind good-looking and expensive laboratory results.

Washing the produce, even with a sanitizer, is not a reliable solution. While sanitation reduces risk of cross contamination, research shows that washing and even sanitizing will not reliably disinfect fresh produce once microbes attach to the surface. In some instances, microbes can enter the flesh of the produce, untouched by wash water and sanitizer.

Even before the floods from Irene, small-scale produce growers found themselves in a new era of on-farm food safety. The Food Safety Modernization Act recently passed by Congress and the proposed Leafy Green Marketing Agreement developed by large western growers and retail food buyers pose potential new requirements and expectations for the growing and handling of produce on Vermont farms.

Already, some Vermont retailers are requiring growers to complete a Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) audit. While most of the sanitary practices outlined in GAPs are applicable to all farms, many smaller diversified farms typical in the Northeast lack the staff time to implement the extensive monitoring and record keeping required of the audit, and infrastructure upgrades for GAPs can be financially prohibitive. Small, diversified operations need a simpler yet effective system for reducing food safety risks.

Our post-flooding situation now poses many additional challenges. Many farmers will be left with large economic losses this year, as the flood hit just when many crops were ready for harvest. Some are considering relocating their farming operations or whether or not to keep farming at all.

Some are asking, with good reason, for the science behind the FDA flooding regulation. We have good research-based evidence that with floodwaters come the potential for increased microbial load and chemical contaminants, and that produce can internalize these contaminants. The risks to food safety are elevated and quite real in a post-flood situation.

The difficulty comes in quantifying the risk. Every flooded field is different. The microbial and chemical contaminant mix of floodwater varies from place to place. Each crop behaves differently in its susceptibility to contamination, which can also vary by maturity. We don’t yet have the scientific tools or resources to evaluate fields on a case-by-case basis.

Following the precautionary principle is a current necessity of flooding, not just to protect public health but also Vermont’s reputation of producing safe and high-quality produce. A recent study found that between 15 and 20 percent of people have increased susceptibility to food-borne illness due to age, pregnancy or health conditions that affect the immune system. A food-borne illness outbreak and/or death associated with contaminated flooded produce, while a tragedy in its own right, could also have devastating consequences for the Vermont produce industry.

The health of our produce industry matters, in part, because local foods provide environmental, social and economic benefits to Vermont. Health benefits are realized when foods are whole or minimally processed, just the kind of food you get at the farmers market or from a CSA share. Local foods are generally grown under more sustainable growing conditions and do not need to travel thousands of miles to get to your plate, and they keep more money in the local economy. CSAs and farmers’ markets allow for conversation between grower and eater, and between eaters.

Vermont is no stranger to flooding, and we’ll undoubtedly see more of it in the coming years. As we contemplate building back a more resilient Vermont, we need to also consider how to reduce contaminants in our watersheds. It is likely that our local food system will be providing even more food and all its associated benefits in the coming years, so we also need to start planning for flooding at the farm level.

In the aftermath of Irene, University of Vermont Extension and the Center for Sustainable Agriculture will be working with growers to help them develop innovative farming practices to continue farming on fertile lands, while protecting the safety of the food supply. For example, planting fruit trees or biofuels crops on the most susceptible fields may decrease losses from flooded fields as produce not in contact with flood waters or non-edible cash crops could still be marketed after flooding.

The challenges are many when it comes to farming and the environment. On the bright side, our local food system is thriving, creating strong markets for our farmers. Let’s continue to support our farms in good times and bad so they can make a good living, providing us with abundant and safe products long into the future.

Consider taking action to support local agriculture:

  • Buy local from affected farms. Purchase CSA shares if available, patronize farm stands, visit farmers’ markets and buy locally-produced products in retail stores to give farmers the income they need to recover and stay in business.
  • Donate to one of the several relief funds set up to help farmers cope with losses due to Tropical Storm Irene.
  • Follow the progress of the Food Safety Modernization Act. When the public comment period comes up, ask the FDA to take into account that controls for preventing contamination of produce are not one-size-fits-all for farms.
  • Volunteer for local watershed groups to monitor water quality, replant riparian buffer zones and clean up potential sources of contaminants in flood plains.
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  • Ben Mark

    Where is the traceback and records for these crops to make sure they don’t enter the food supply and sicken people?