November 11, 2021

SCIENCE: Can Animal Agricultural & Produce Production Co-exist?

Can you safely have animal agriculture near produce production areas? With the appropriate food safety measures in place, meaning they must be both surgical and practical, the answer is “yes.”

Numerous investigations of recent foodborne illness outbreaks associated with fresh produce consumption have indicated that broader agricultural environment contamination with human pathogens of public health significance is contributing to fresh produce contamination. Take, for example, the 2018 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 linked to romaine from the desert growing region. A large concentrated animal feeding operation was intimately proximate with fresh produce operations, and as a result, was implicated as the source of contamination. What was not determined in the outbreak is how the pathogenic bacteria were transferred to the romaine growing fields…and whether it was water, wind, animal, human or equipment movement. All these may act as potential vectors of pathogens from an animal source to a produce growing operation.

Because there is much social, economic and scientific complexity surrounding this topic, Western Growers has developed a comprehensive strategy on how to resolve food safety concerns associated with the co-existence of animal agricultural and produce growing operations.

First, systematic risk-based management of the environmental interface between animal and plant agriculture systems is needed. Second, government-supported frameworks—such as the frameworks currently available to address environmental conservation needs—are also needed. Both need to work at the local, regional and national level to support the following:

  • education programs on risk assessment best management strategies to significantly minimize foodborne illness risk related to fresh produce;
  • research to identify effective food safety controls for produce grown in mixed agricultural regions; and
  • private and private/public digital tools to facilitate access to food safety and environmental data-sharing as well as promote local/regional collaborative responses to produce safety problems.

Third, a plan of action needs to be executed. Rather than implementing a “catch-all” solution such as increasing buffer zone, which is something our industry tends to gravitate toward, our actions must be well-researched and thought out.

An effective plan of attack is as follows:

  • Gain funding for research that will:
    • Identify strategies focused on produce safety and the produce growing environment that can be implemented immediately and over the longer term in the broader agricultural environment, including strategies designed to:
      • reduce human pathogen environmental loading and/or likelihood of movement from animal agriculture facilities, thereby reducing the potential for transfer of pathogens to produce;
      • address transfer of pathogens to plants (fresh produce) such as water treatment chemistries, water delivery management, dust management, wildlife and pest management and use of vegetative barriers; and
      • define measures of effectiveness for such strategies and thereby also quantifying the performance of resulting food safety controls.
    • Facilitate application of data models to determine best prevention strategies.
      •  Advocate for Congress to consider incentive and incentive frameworks (e.g., Farm Bill) that will make available funding for growers to apply effective animal/plant transfer mitigations including:
        •  incentivize adoption of mitigation strategies (for both animal and plant agriculture)
        • resolve infrastructure needs (such as water delivery, roads, etc.) that will reduce food safety risks associated with environmental reservoirs

Between systematic risk-based management, government-supported frameworks and a well thought out plan of action, the industry can mitigate any concerns regarding co-existence of animal and produce agriculture.