Environmental Health Down on the Farm

As an environmental health professional, I have enjoyed a successful career in hands-on food protection from farm to table. My success in this wide array of conditions has come through the effective application of environmental health principles.

Nowhere in food safety today is environmental health needed more than down on the farm, where the environmental health risks factors are becoming better understood. As a sanitarian and independent food safety auditor, there are some key areas of environmental health in my work on the farm; water quality, animal control, and worker hygienic standards. Private food safety auditors have started calling these the "Three W’s" for Workers-Water-and Wildlife.

Typical Tomato Reusable Harvesting Container Rinse Typical tomato wash water used to rinse picking buckets 

Downstream effects of the environmental health problems originating on produce farms are huge. The  problems reverberate through the the rest of the controls we have in place. Because the risks are not well controlled, we need more and more robust surveillance, traceability and product recall ability, testing; and of course, redress for victims in court. These unfortunate individuals and their families hold the bag at the end of the system without much control.  The cost burden on the food industry due to outbreaks is remarkable. The Listeria problem in cantaloupe may cost industry $150 million in legal fees, alone. All of this has happened because we have not effectively established in the produce industry a relatively few environmental health protections that should have been there years ago.

Thinking optimistically, we can fix most of the produce contamination problem during growing and harvesting of produce by effective controls over workers; water supplies and usage in all its forms; and wildlife. We can ease the pressure on the supply chain, and minimize the downstream effects on consumers and society at large.

Agriculture has been side by side with animal husbandry and wild animal populations forever, so we cannot expect to remove the zoonotic reservoirs for pathogens completely in farm environments. Therefore, there will always be some risk in fresh produce; but the residual risks passed on in the supply chain will be better managed during packing, processing and handling downstream, if the microbial burden is low.

Vaccination maybe an option to protect against E coli infection in cattle, since we have one with efficacy; but granted, this protection has had poor discussion and vaccines have not been applied. If we had an effective vaccine and farmers would use it, one would start there. Ideally, we would reduce the incidence of pathogenic E coli in cattle (the reservoir) through vaccination, and then move on to exclude the wild animal populations and clean up water sources.

It is likely that adequate fences and other animal barriers, adequate setbacks (still don’t know what this means in every case), water treatment (when needed), strict adherence to personal hygiene, self-inspection and maintenance will solve most of the E. coli and Salmonella problem in growing areas.

We can do this, but a coordinated national efforts is not so simple, and everything has a cost. Somebody must pay, then somebody must make sure it gets done, and financial resources are not necessarily there.

The farms I see would need about $10,000 to $50,000 (could be higher for some) of initial investment, and probably at least 10% of that for yearly maintenance, to implement effective wild animal exclusion measures. The cost would be borne by the farmer in addition to the many other costs of Good Agricultural Practices(GAP), like personal hygiene, training, use of antimicrobials and water treatment, liquid and solid waste controls, that he currently pays for.

Not all farms need the same intensity of controls; I see irrigation water coming out of deep wells as clean as tap water (Total Coliform < 1 cfu), and often the crops see no foliar applications. I see other situations where the foliar application of water is sourced from the surface, and must be treated.

Animal intrusion risks vary widely also; there are some farms in the Southeast where I see only isolated dogs, cats, or bird exposures with an occasional rodent or ground animal.

On some other occasions, I see systematic deer, pig and other wildlife intrusion and extensive droppings. Sometimes we find feces to the extent where harvesting must be halted, and/or production stopped.

In the western US, I see the cattle operations butted right up to produce production; the Salinas Valley in California has much different space requirements, resource needs, and land use issues then Immokalee in the Florida Everglades. As an aside, during our private investigation of the 2006 spinach E coli matter, I sampled one cow patty from a Salinas area hillside pasture and recovered an E. coli: O157:H7 isolate (but not the outbreak strain). One lucky random sample? Or is this bug seriously rampant in this area?

In addition, there are areas with water diversion and flooding problems (due to drought conditions we have not seen much of this factor in outbreaks) and several other environmental health risks we can point out across the board in agriculture.

This is all manageable, and makes it more manageable for us to put into place all of the other safeguards we now need.

On the farm we have “in your face" environmental health problems similar to those that are already addressed by the existing environmental health profession.

We need environmental health professionals to fix environmental health down on the farm, and they can do it, its as simple as that.

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