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Food Safety Concerns Clash
With Organic Values

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 17, 2007

Everybody is in favor of food safety — right up till it bumps into something else they value. This article, Farms May Cut Habitat Renewal Over E. coli Fears, in the San Francisco Chronicle has gotten many organic growers, who value programs that are geared toward encouraging biological diversity, questioning what will actually be required under the California Marketing Agreement and a later Marketing Order:

The recent scares over deadly bacteria in California produce may hurt farm programs aimed at restoring wildlife habitat and cutting water pollution.

Such environmental programs could be at odds with “clean farming techniques” promoted by food processors. Those techniques encourage growers to remove grassy areas that are planted to reduce erosion and trap pesticides before they reach waterways. The practices also discourage habitat zones that might attract animals that carry bacteria like E. coli or salmonella.

Some farmers say they must opt out of wildlife habitat and water-quality programs: If they don’t follow processor guidelines, they won’t be able to sell their crops.

“The processors have been putting some pressure on growers for the past couple of years over vegetated corridors because of worries that they may be sources of animal contamination,” said John Anderson, a Yolo County farmer who grows native grass seed for use in restoration projects….

A Salinas Valley grower who requested anonymity because of contract negotiations with processors called the current situation “extremely touchy, with the people who put their names on produce bags having the most to lose. One association with a pathogen and they can lose their brand.”

The grower said that even if processors allow some wildlife habitat near cropland, they now require farmers to put out large quantities of poisoned bait to kill rodents.

“When we plant hedgerows now, we have to use the bait stations or we lose our contracts,” he said. “Later, you see birds of prey perched over the bait. They eat mice sluggish from the poison and get poisoned themselves. It kind of defeats the whole purpose of putting in the habitat.”

There is controversy over how much risk the hedgerows and other projects actually pose, but few processors are in the mood to take any chances at all.

As food safety moves from a generalized principle to detailed actions required by buyers or government, the willingness to cooperate is likely to go down fast as competing values enter the fray.

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