Food Safety Education Month

Mention sustainable agriculture and you’ll likely get a hearty thumbs-up. Ask why this is so, and you’ll hear how sustainable farmers take good care of the soil, their animals, the environment, their employees — and that this way of farming benefits consumers’ health and safety.

You’ll also be told that farmers who practice sustainable agriculture don’t overload the soil with chemicals and don’t confine their livestock in crowded, unhealthy quarters, making for safer food from a safer environment. Family farms, not corporate agriculture, will be a common theme in answers to questions about sustainable farming.

But ask someone for a definition of sustainable farming and while you’ll get an opinion about what it is, you won’t get a point-blank definition. That’s because there really isn’t one.

Even so, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition takes a good stab at it, saying that its vision of agriculture is one where a “safe, nutritious, ample, and affordable food supply is produced by a legion of family farmers who make a decent living pursuing their trade while protecting the environment and contributing to the strength and stability of their communities.”

By “family farmers,” advocates generally mean small- and mid-sized farms, although larger farms can also be sustainable.

Other goals include improving the tilth of the soil by building up organic matter, reducing erosion, avoiding the use of antibiotics in food animals, and, with an eye on climate change, keeping more carbon in the soil.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, agricultural sustainability is a complex idea with many facets, including the economic because a sustainable farm should be a profitable business that contributes to a robust economy;  and the social, so it deals fairly with its workers and has a mutually beneficial relationship with the surrounding community, and the environment.

Among other things, this involves

•Building and maintaining healthy soil;

•Managing water wisely;

•Minimizing air, water, and climate pollution; and

•Promoting biodiversity

Some refer to sustainable agriculture as “the wave of the future.” One reason for that description comes down to a marketplace reality: Many consumers are increasingly seeking out food that isn’t grown with harmful or synthetic pesticides or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Or as one customer of Sylvanaqua Farms in Virginia put it: “Makes me feel a lot better about what I am eating and serving to my family!”

Unlike organic agriculture, there is no official certification or label for sustainable agriculture.

According to “Tillable,” organic agriculture and sustainable agriculture embrace two different concepts, although they may overlap.

While organic farming focuses on inputs such as synthetic fertilizers, sustainable farming focuses on the physical treatment of the land, which can include no-till practices, cover crops, and buffer zones. While both approaches are perceived as being environmentally friendly, farmers often go about them in very different ways.

And while organic food generally commands higher prices in the marketplace, that’s not the case with sustainable crops or livestock. Even so, some restaurants, grocery stores, and consumers who value sustainable agriculture are willing to pay more for food produced this way.

What about food safety?
That’s a good question. When asked if sustainable farming and food safety go hand in hand, Virginia Good, a farmer and board member of the Sedro-Woolley Farmers Market, said “that’s old thinking.” 

The two aren’t automatically entwined, she said, something that used to be assumed when sustainability became a buzzword. Some sustainable farmers, herself included, incorporate food safety practices into their farming; others don’t, although they should, of course.

Unfortunately, some farmers and consumers assume if you’re farming in “natural” ways there will be no problem with foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, parasites, and viruses. Many see corporate agriculture as the true villain when it comes to contamination.

Looking around at the happy scene of vendors and their customers at the outdoor market, Good said most customers know the farmers they buy from and have faith they’re doing the right thing.

“Local” has become what’s important to them, she said.

Even so, so-called local doesn’t ensure that food safety practices are being followed. And it doesn’t necessarily mean the food is local; some of it comes from hundreds of miles away. No matter where it’s from, produce should be washed in clean water, the containers that food is transported in should be clean, and produce eggs, and meat should be kept cool while being transported to the market and at the market. Handwashing is also important because bacteria can travel from contaminated produce and meat to people, causing serious infections.

Food safety practices are no small matter because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year 48 million people in the United States get sick from foodborne pathogens, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 people die.

Enter the backyard chickens
With time on their hands and concerns about their health dominating their thoughts during COVID lockdowns, some people decided to embark on a new venture: backyard chickens. This was true even for people who live within city limits.

Some have called it “explosive” growth in the practice. 

A lot of backyard poultry owners believe having a backyard flock is a good step toward sustainability. Besides this, it helped relieve boredom during lockdowns and they got fresh eggs in the bargain. And once the expense of building a chicken house and buying the chicks are factored into the equation — or ignored — there is the feeling that they can save money by going out and collecting their own eggs.

But this doesn’t mean there isn’t the need to become informed about foodborne pathogens, especially Salmonella, and how to prevent the bacteria from contaminating their flocks, their eggs, themselves, and family and friends.

Salmonella infection, known as salmonellosis, is a bacterial disease affecting the intestinal tract of humans, chickens and other birds and mammals. It can also be found on fresh produce.

Backyard chickens and other poultry can sicken people with Salmonella infections. In an ongoing outbreak that spans 47 states, the confirmed patient count currently stands at 863, according to recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than a fourth of those who have been infected are children younger than 5 years old. Thirty-three percent of patients have been hospitalized, and two people have died. The illnesses started on Dec. 15, 2020, with the most recently reported illness on Aug. 8, 2021.

Health officials say there are likely many more people who have been infected but did not seek medical attention or tests to confirm that they are part of the outbreak.

State and local public health officials are interviewing people about the animals they came into contact with the week before they got sick. Of the 527 people interviewed, 365 reported remembering contact with backyard poultry before getting sick.

Typical symptoms are diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps. 

Most people recover without treatment after 4 to 7 days. But some people — especially those younger than 5 and adults 65 and older, and those with weakened immune systems — may become severely ill and need medical treatment or hospitalization. The CDC’s advice in cases like this is to seek medical attention right away.

Joe McGuire, a Sedro-Woolley resident who has a backyard flock of four chickens, said he thinks part of the problem is that some people treat chickens like pets instead of chickens.

“They flock animals, not pets like dogs and cats,” he said, pointing out that children especially shouldn’t hold them up to their faces and cuddle them.

The CDC agrees with that. It advises people to closely supervise children around backyard poultry.

“Don’t let children younger than 5 years touch chicks,” it says. “Don’t kiss or snuggle backyard poultry, and don’t eat or drink around them since that can spread Salmonella to your mouth and make you sick.”

Bottom line: Young children are more likely to get sick from germs like Salmonella. One in four sick people is a child younger than 5 years.

Backyard poultry such as chickens and ducks can carry Salmonella germs even if they look healthy and clean, advises the CDC. These germs can easily spread to anything in the areas where the poultry live and roam.

McGuire is serious about keeping everything clean when it comes to his backyard flock. Each and every day, he rakes up their droppings and puts them in a barrel.

When it comes to food safety, he dons boots that are only used when he goes into the pen. And he puts on a pair of gloves when he cleans the pen. He keeps the nesting boxes clean, and he washes his hands after cleaning the pen and collecting the eggs. From there, he puts the eggs into the refrigerator to keep them cool. And regularly cleans the fridge.

“You have to get used to it,” he said, about being so diligent about keeping things clean. “You want your chickens to be healthy.”

He views his setup as sustainable in large part because he applies the nitrogen-rich chicken droppings to his garden and enjoys a bountiful harvest during the following season months later. Thanks to this strategy, he doesn’t have to use synthetic fertilizers.

And while he appreciates the eggs the chickens lay, he said that “just watching them is more fun than anything else.”

Former dairyman Dick Klein agrees with McGuire on the importance of keeping things clean. He makes sure his chicken house is well-ventilated, and he cleans it on a regular basis. 

“Keep their environment as healthy as yours,” he said. “If you do that you shouldn’t have problems.”

And while he would like to let his chickens roam about, if he did, they would make short order of his garden. 

Besides this, there are too many predators, not the least, hawks and coyotes, that would quickly make a meal of them.

“I’ve even had a coyote grab a chicken in broad daylight,” he said.

Like McGuire, he counts himself as “sustainable” because he takes good care of his chickens and applies their manure in the garden soil to nourish it months before planting, which means he doesn’t have to use synthetic chemicals. And like most sustainable farmers, he doesn’t use antibiotics. 

As for how sustainable his operation is, he can’t count himself in that equation 

“I spend a lot on feed, but I give most of the eggs away,” he said laughing.

According to a research study, 93 percent of the 150 most populated U.S. cities allow people to have backyard chickens in some capacity. How many chickens you can have depends on local city ordinances. In most cases, roosters are not allowed.

Depending on the breed of chickens you raise you can expect 200-300 eggs per hen each year.

Go here for more information about food safety practices to use when raising backyard poultry.

What about farms and food safety?
Chris Newman and his wife Annie’s 120-acre farm “Sylvanaqua Farms” in Virginia, use an array of sustainable practices to produce eggs, pasture-raised chicken, grass-fed beef, and pork. Most of the land is forested.

Rotational grazing for the cattle and letting the pigs roam in the woods are key to raising their livestock in a sustainably environmental way, they say.

But Chris says that while a lot of the conversation about sustainability is about technological things such as no-till, no sprays, and no GMOs, the important part of sustainability is about people.

“Ultimately, feeding people needs to be at the heart of sustainable farming,” he told a reporter.

On a smaller scale, Nita Hodgins, manager for the farmers market and farm stand at Eagle Haven Winery Farmers Market and Farm Stand in Skagit County, WA, said that as a consumer she likes the thought of sustainable farmers using food safety practices. But she said she knows you can’t assume they are.

“I ask farmers about how they harvest their crops, how they clean them, and even how they transport them,” she said.

Sean Doyle

Sean Doyle, co-owner of Father and Daughter Farm, also in Skagit County, said that food safety and food quality go together.

He keeps his greens on ice, and those that aren’t on display are kept in a cooler until they’re put up on display.

He said food safety calls for robust cleaning and that the challenge is in sorting the produce to keep it away from anything that might contaminate it.

“We’re very sanitary,” he said. “We have to be.”

Gail Blackburn

Gail Blackburn, the owner of Innis Creek Farm in Whatcom County, WA, always ices almost all of her produce.

The greens are on “beds” of ice, and ice crystals are sprinkled among the broccoli heads.

Temperature is critical, she said about food safety. “You have to keep things cool.”

According to FDA, raw food including lettuces and greens should be kept at 41 degrees F or cooler to keep bacteria, especially E. coli, from proliferating. 

A sign at Blackburn’s booth lets people know that she’s “uncertified organic.” “All produce and flowers are grown using organic practices,” the sign says. “No pesticides or chemical fertilizers are used.”

Like many small-scale farmers, she has found that the organic certification process calls for too much time and paperwork. But she said that her sign lets customers know that her produce is grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers, which is important to many people. 

Not two separate issues
In a publication for SCS Global Services, an international organization that deals in sustainability and food safety issues, Lesley Sykes, a service manager in the company’s Food and Agriculture division, cautions that food safety and sustainability are not entirely different issues, as many people might think, but rather flip sides of the same coin.

When it comes to the sustainability of a farm or ag company,  managing food safety risks is “an economic imperative,” she said. “One false step can cost a company its reputation.”

“Rather than flipping the coin to see which side of the food safety/sustainability divide we land on,” she said, “it’s time to build food safety and sustainability together.”

A global perspective
This past summer, the World Health Organization discussed plans to include food safety in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. But as of yet, no food safety indicators have been recognized, despite the links that food safety has with sustainable development goals, which include zero hunger, good health and well-being, and decent work and economic growth. 

During a webinar to mark World Food Safety day on June 7, experts did bring up the subject of the potential of a Sustainable Development indicator for stronger food safety accountability to track global and national progress and to reduce the health burden from unsafe food.

Information from WHO said the topic could be introduced when there is a review of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2025.

But that’s not as soon as some people would like.

“We need to make a big noise at the pre-summit and an even bigger noise at the summit for food safety issues to breakthrough, said Lawrence Haddad, chair of an action track for the UN Food Systems Summit. Saying that though “he was shocked” that there wasn’t yet a food safety indicator. He is nevertheless glad that FAO and WHO are working on it. 

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