Food-safety rule regulates animals' impact on crops


Issue Date: August 14, 2013
By Ching Lee
Merced County farmer Loren Scoto places a squirrel bait station next to a hole that squirrels have dug. Because wild animals such as squirrels can destroy crops and create food-safety issues, farmers use a variety of methods to keep them out of their fields.
Photo/Ching Lee

Editor's note: This is Part 2 of a series of stories about how proposed federal food-safety rules could affect California farmers and ranchers.

The presence of animals on the farm can be both a blessing and a nuisance for farmers.

Domesticated animals such as livestock used to graze weeds and crop stubble allow farmers to reduce their use of fossil fuels while cycling nutrients into the soil. Wild animals can wreak havoc on farms, destroying crops and irrigation lines—but they can also help manage other pests and contribute to biodiversity.

Because animals are considered a possible source of contamination in food-safety issues involving fresh produce, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has developed proposed rules to prevent contamination of produce by domesticated and wild animals as part of the new Food Safety Modernization Act, or FSMA. The proposed rule requires farmers to monitor for wildlife intrusion and not harvest produce visibly contaminated with animal feces.

Many farmers agree that much of what FDA has proposed is already common practice on California farms.

"When you take a step back and look at (the rule), they're not asking us to jump through that much of a hoop," said Loren Scoto, who grows fresh-market tomatoes in Merced County and said his farm's food-?safety standards actually exceed what's being proposed.

The proposed rule also does not outline specific measures to prevent animal intrusion, such as putting up fences, modifying habitat or clearing farm borders. But Scoto said some of those steps may be necessary at times to protect crops.

For example, squirrels are a huge problem on his farm, and workers constantly monitor for squirrel holes when they're irrigating or treating for weeds. They mark each hole using GPS and then go back to put bait near the holes.

Farmers have been protecting their crops from animals long before the federal government became involved with regulating food safety, said Gurmail Mudahar, vice president of food safety for Tanimura and Antle, a grower/shipper of fresh vegetables in Salinas.

"You don't want that wild animal in your crop. It's not because of food safety; it's because of economic reasons," he said. "Animals destroy crops. So we keep them out, simple as that."

Many California growers already belong to the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement—a voluntary program that requires farmers to follow certain food-safety practices—or are covered by other third-party food-safety certifications, said Rob Atwill, director of the Western Institute of Food Safety and Security at the University of California, Davis. For those farmers, the new federal rules "may not be a dramatic shift," he added.

High-profile vendors and retailers that buy fresh produce also often have their own food-safety standards that are stricter than what the federal government is proposing, Atwill said, and growers who sell to these buyers likely will not need to change much of what they do.

But farmers who may not sell to those particular customers could see changes, he said.

"The produce safety rule is going to enroll a lot more farmers, when before it depended on who was your buyer," Atwill said.

There is also concern about how FSMA may impact other fresh produce crops, such as those grown in the Central Valley that are not covered by the leafy-greens agreement, said Lesa Eidman, executive director of the California Woolgrowers Association. Some sheep ranchers rely on those fields to provide crop residue for grazing their flocks, and FSMA may deter farmers from allowing sheep on their land, she said.

The proposed rule would require certain measures, such as an "adequate waiting period" between grazing and crop harvest, if there is a reasonable probability of contamination. While the regulations do not specify a length of time, FDA said it does not expect the waiting period to exceed nine months, which is the same interval it proposed between application of raw manure and harvest.

Fresno County sheep rancher Ryan Indart said he doesn't know of any producers in his region who graze fresh-market crop residue anymore—and certainly not in the Salinas Valley—unlike 20 years ago, when sheep used to graze postharvest fields of melons, tomatoes, broccoli and other vegetables.

Monterey County sheep rancher Joanne Nissen said she sold most of her flock because she leases land to vegetable growers whose buyers have strict rules about livestock grazing near where those crops are grown.

"Nobody said I couldn't raise sheep," she said. "It was simply that I couldn't lease the farm ground adjacent to the pasture."

Don Cameron, a diversified farmer in Fresno County, said he still uses sheep from time to time to clean up postharvest residue, but only when he's not planting fresh produce behind the sheep. For example, he may follow the sheep with alfalfa or processing tomatoes.

"We're aware of the food safety issues, so we're real careful about how we do it," he said. "We don't want to create a problem, but we found that we could do it safely."

Mudahar said what he would like FDA to address in the rule are those factors over which farmers have no control, such as birds, flies and other insects, wind and other environmental elements that could potentially affect produce. He said if FDA wants to hold farms responsible for food safety, it should at least acknowledge some of the inherent risks with growing food in an open environment.

"Farmers grow their crops in the great outdoors and the final FDA rule needs to take that into account," California Farm Bureau Federation Federal Policy Division Manager Rayne Pegg said. "The rule needs to set realistic standards that recognize the significant safety measures that farmers already take."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Next week: Farmers consider the effect of the proposed food-safety rule on managing irrigation water.

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.