Mixing Reason With Reality

As part of the celebration for this magazine’s 100th anniversary last December, we asked some of our columnists and advisory board members to make predictions on where the vegetable industry will be 50 years from now. One that caught my eye was from AVG’s “In The Greenhouse” columnist, Rick Snyder, who noted, “The magazine will be 90% concerned with greenhouse vegetables, but there will be one or two articles each year covering the old school methods of using soil and exposing crops to the elements outside.”

While Snyder’s comments may have been somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the more extreme today’s food safety regulatory environment gets, the more his comments could become reality.

In the past couple of months, we’ve witnessed a growing debate over how strict food safety regulations can and should become, and to a greater extent, how growers who are diverse in geography, size, and market can compete in the face of regional or crop-specific guidelines. Just recently, we’ve heard from growers in the West, wondering why they must follow different standards than growers across the country.

Points To Ponder

If there’s one thing that is clear in the food safety discussion, it’s that nothing is clear. A lot of gray areas still need to be addressed, especially when considering the needs of the entire vegetable industry. Here’s just a sampling of the questions that need to be asked, even if they don’t have clear answers at this point:

• How can we develop reasonable food safety policies that all growers can meet? While the only current mandatory standards apply to growers of leafy greens, produce buyers (as well as consumers) have specific demands of their own, such as third-party audits and the implementation of Good Agricultural Practices.

• If a set of national standards were developed, who would finance grower compliance? The costs of proper enforcement would undoubtedly be high, both for small and large growers. How can this enforcement take place without putting producers at risk?

• Can you really prevent every form of contamination of your crop? This alludes to Snyder’s comment; unless you’re growing everything in a protective bubble, it’s impossible to keep birds from flying overhead.

Our Position

Despite these and other lingering concerns, we at American Vegetable Grower know that food safety needs to remain at the top of the list of grower priorities, both on an individual and collective basis. As a voice for the industry, we offer the following take-home messages.

1. Any further regulations that develop from today’s food safety problems must be realistic. While the standards for raising vegetables are certainly changing for everyone (for example, the days of family pets wandering the field may be coming to an end), a sense of reason must prevail.

2. Growers should be proactive in communicating information about their food safety programs, whether they’re dealing with retail buyers, or directly with the public.

3. Above all else, growers should be mindful of what they are doing at all times. As we stated in the February issue of AVG, it only takes one food safety-related incident to affect your entire business. If there’s a news crew visiting your farm for a feel-good story and they happen to notice something out of the ordinary in your field, you can bet the cameras will quickly shift away from you. Suddenly you’ll have a new story on your hands — one you didn’t want.

If you choose to stick your head in the sand about food safety, it’s your decision. But there’s a risk in doing so, a risk that could do unending damage to your business and our industry.

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