Spooked by the 2006 E. coli outbreak in bagged greens, California and now the federal government too are moving in the direction of stringent regulations — rules that, Sharon Zecchinelli writes, could squelch small growers and damage soil and streams.">
Danger zone? Or is it just a fine plot of chard, kale, beets, spinach and lettuce?
Photo: Silvercreek Garden , Bellingham, Washington
The following conversation takes place in the not-so-distant future.
“Grammy, in our history class today the teacher read to us from a book called Little House on the Prairie“
“Oh, I remember those stories. Do you like them?”
“Yup, but I didn’t know about some of the things she read to us.”
“Like what, my darlin’?”
“Well, how did they eat things right out of the garden. Were they that brave? Or were they just so hungry they didn’t care if they died?”
“What do you mean, sweetie? Food from the garden is perfectly safe.”
“That’s not what they told us today. Teacher said that home grown food is awfully dangerous and we shouldn’t eat it, ever. They said that we should never eat spinach or lettuce or vegetables that, well, like what you grow in your garden.” The child’s eyes welled up with tears and he threw his arms around his Grammy’s waist. “I was so worried about you for the rest of the day.”
While this conversation may seem far fetched to some, for others of us it is not such a stretch of imagination. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have it in their collective head that all bacteria, viruses and germs must be stamped out of all food products, including leafy greens and livestock. The most recent USDA scheme suggests there should be some type of regulatory tool to assist industry in insuring the safety of leafy green vegetable products.
The USDA is considering both voluntary and mandatory standards, officials say, but favors a voluntary program that allows flexibility. If past performance is an accurate predictor of future performance, though, the voluntary aspect of this program will soon become mandatory — when individual states begin requiring, as with any of the livestock disease eradication programs, memorandums of understanding between states that make it impossible for non-cooperators to sell their products to cooperators (those who participate in the program).
According to the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement of 2007 (an industry guide, not yet written into law) only handlers — “any person who handles, processes, ships or distributes leafy green products for market” — would be able to sell product. The agreement applies the same standards to all producers, including small farmers who grow leafy greens and sell directly to consumers, farmers markets and restaurants. These farmers are the least likely to be the cause of any food borne illnesses.
All these measures are the close-the-barn-door-after-the-horse-is-already-out response to the E. coli 0157 outbreaks last year in processed, bagged greens and salads. Any federal rules would likely be similar to those of California’s leafy greens industry. And that's a concern. California has created a set of guidelines – Good Agricultural Practices (GAPS) ““ that include growing practices that discourage biodiversity and sustainable/organic farming methods, deplete soil fertility, and create “sterile” fields; their new rules require testing water monthly and keeping animals off of farmland. These methods have not been scientifically proven actually to reduce E. coli 0157 bacteria but are certain to reduce biodiversity, harm wildlife, and burden family-scale farms.
Leaf of chard
Photo: Silvercreek Garden
According to the Santa Cruz-based Community Alliance of Family Farmers’ (CAFF) analysis of data provided by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, since 1999, 98.5 percent of the reported E. Coli 0157 illnesses originating in California were traced to processed, bagged salad (that the industry calls "fresh-cut"). In a letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein, who tried to put forward a Leafy Greens amendment to the Farm Bill, CAFF said, “The leafy greens definition includes such things as chard and kale, which are usually cooked and have never been implicated in a health outbreak.” With this one-size-fits-all mentality, the state of California, and now possibly the federal government, too, are failing to think through the consequences of regulation, especially as they would affect small-scale producers and the larger environment.
USDA and FDA’s approach to food and farming seems consistently to disregard common sense in favor of their own version of “sound science.” Recently Joel Salatin said in Acres USA, “Only government food is safe food. Sound science dictates what is safe. No other standard will do. Only T-bone steaks wrapped in million-dollar, agriculturally prohibited, quintuple-permitted, government-sanctioned processing facilities are fit for human consumption. I can’t buy a pound cake from a neighbor who whipped it up and baked it in the family kitchen. That’s not safe. Sound science has thus decreed.”
But there is no sound science in the Leafy Greens proposal. Current rules call for more attention to possible sources of animal and water contamination, like removing hedge rows and vegetation from perimeters to discourage wildlife from coming close to farms. But the loss of the hedges and green perimeters allows manure – a known source of E. coli contamination ““ to run off into streams.
The Cornucopia Institute says, “Farmers would be encouraged to eliminate wildlife and any vegetation that may provide habitat for wildlife. The rules also discourage the development of microbial life in the soil. These methods have not been shown to reduce the risk of harmful bacterial contamination. In fact, sustainable farming methods that promote microbial life in soil have been shown to reduce E. coli 0157 because it has to compete with other microbes and is therefore less likely to thrive. However, the aim of these rules seems to be for sterile fields that support no forms of life, except for the leafy greens.”
Until USDA and FDA can be convinced that industry is not the model for providing wholesome food for this country — meaning they have take the stars out of their eyes when they think about global markets yet to be conquered — our food system is going to get sicker and sicker. People are now beginning to wake up to the safety of locally produced food. And you can be sure that with regulations like Leafy Greens and NAIS, an underground network of local food systems is going to have to develop, or we will find ourselves with only box stores for nourishment.
Sharon Zecchinelli, is a retired chef and small homesteader who lives in NW Vermont and has just completed the first novel ever written about opposition to animal tagging regulations. She can be reached via email at email@example.com. Her blog is Post Menopausal Ponderings.