Produce assurance

I cannot speak about this only as a citizen only because I have researched this as a state employee. But I am home sick today, listening to Wisconsin Public Radio. During a call-in radio show, there was a discussion about the entire spinach outbreak and what can be done to prevent or avoid this. A variety of ideas were presented by the public.

Some suggested purchasing organic. The organic standards for production are more strict than the standards for producing mass-grown products. For starters, pesticides are not permitted on any product that is labeled “organic.” That means that consumers do not need to worry about unwanted chemicals on the produce that they buy. Also, composting methods that are set forth in the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines require organic farmers to compost the manure much more than is required for non-organic farmers. This reduces (not eliminates) the potential for foodborne illnesses.

But the problem with purchasing organic is that it is costly. If purchasing an apple at the local supermarket costs $0.89, it would cost up to $1.79 at the organic growers’ co-operative. If you can afford it, more power to you. But there are those that need to eat healthily yet cannot afford to pay more for food, due to income constraints. For them, purchasing organic is not a feasible option.

The second alternative is to visit the local farmers’ market every weekend. One caller suggested that you could develop a more personal relationship with the farmer and purchase fruit and vegetables that are in season, and that farmer would want to continue selling to you. From my experience, costs here are usually fairly competitive with supermarket prices, so cost would not be a roadblock.

I would like to believe that most of our local farmers would not deliberately cut corners to make a buck and would prefer to sell a quality product. But there is the risk that a farmer could do that, either deliberately or inadvertently (I say inadvertently because we are all human and we all make mistakes or forget steps in our quality assurance processes).
Furthermore, there is an issue with time; for those that cannot always find the time to visit the farmers’ market, they would miss an opportunity to purchase. Many lower-income people work multiple jobs and may not be able to take a morning off from work to shop the farmers’ market. Also, some farmers’ markets are in locations that are not easily accessible via public transportation or do not provide inexpensive/free parking. Again, the supermarket is still the best choice for many.

Another caller asked about the convenience of pre-washed, pre-packaged items and if those were the primary culprits. This was in reference to spinach that is sold for the purpose of making tossed salads. It turns out that no matter how much washing you do, the only way to eliminate any potential disease bacteria is to properly cook the produce. But not many people want a tossed salad with cooked lettuce or spinach. Even apples and oranges are preferred raw to cooked… the way nature intended.

Another caller asked about improving government standards. Although much of the produce we eat comes from overseas, there is also much produce that comes from our domestic farms. The current standards in place for quality assurance, according to the radio guest expert, are many decades old and do need revising. The law has not kept up with either technology or the expanding population demands. She stated that some agency must take leadership in developing updated or new standards and assuring the public that the latest standards are in use.

This is similar to what has been done with livestock production. Within the past few years, the USDA worked with industry to develop the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). The first step is livestock premises registration. Wisconsin was the first state to pass a mandatory premises registration law, requiring everyone that kept or commingled livestock to register that location with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), whether its only one animal for personal use or a major business operation. Could a similar program be provided for produce?

One argument against such a program is the cost to upgrade a farm operation so that it can meet certification standards. Many farmers are already struggling to make ends meet with their farms. But when something like the recent spinach situation occurs, farmers will see greater economic losses due to a sudden decrease in demand for their products. Companies have gone under because of discovery of E. coli (a perfect example is Hudson Foods in the 1990’s).

The European Union has implemented a program called EurepGAP. This is a set of certification standards to ensure quality in a variety of products. Instead of introducing a value-added commodity to the market, EurepGAP assures that the simple products available to the general public are safe to consume. Now I don’t think that the US is similar to Europe, but it never hurts to look around for some best practices that are worth adopting if we want to assure consumer confidence.

In order to implement a certification program for produce sold in the US, several conditions must exist:

  1. It must be mandatory: the public is not assured a safe product if they can choose produce that is not part of the certification process for a cheaper price. A voluntary certification program will not prevent disease from spreading in this case.
  2. It must provide effective standards: the standards cannot be politically motivated; they must be certified with a scientific basis. Anything short of protecting public health and safety should not be omitted.
  3. It must be driven by the federal government: states have a mosaic of livestock premises registration laws in place. Wisconsin does not have any neighboring border states that also have a mandatory law in place. As a result, if a diseased animal crosses borders, there is no way of tracing the disease back to the origin and preventing it from spreading farther. Even different laws may not protect all sectors of the livestock industry. A similar practice for produce would make a certification program ineffective.
  4. It must allow farms some time to implement the new standards: many farms have been in operation for many years. To ask them to change their processes overnight is very difficult. A stepped process by which farms are allowed the time to upgrade their operations will ensure that they can remain in business with minimal disruption.
  5. It must be geared only to those that provide products to the general public: this must be market driven, and it must only apply to those that provide product to the market. The reason why many small producers oppose NAIS is because they are small, personal producers. They raise products only for personal consumption, and have no intention of selling to the market. Any produce certification program must not come after the small producer that raises food solely for personal consumption; otherwise, everyone that has a small garden in their backyard would have to participate, and that would be unfair.

Although we would see a slight increase in costs, the overall benefit of a national certification program would help to assure product safety and, ultimately, consumer confidence. Otherwise, another incident like E. coli found on spinach will likely result in greater fear of purchasing otherwise nutritious raw fruits and vegetables.

US Food and Drug Administration press release: FDA Statement on Foodborne E. coli O157:H7 Outbreak in Spinach

Center for Science in the Public Interest article: FDA Urges Consumers to Stop Eating Bagged Spinach During Outbreak