It seems too often headlines like these make breaking news: “E. coli Fears Prompt Romaine Lettuce Recall,” “Spinach Recalled in 39 States,” “Cantaloupe Listeria Outbreak Deadliest in a Decade.” These dramatic headlines reflect the attention given to food-borne illness outbreaks associated with contaminated fruits and vegetables. Taking sound, science-based steps to reduce the risk of contaminating produce with pathogens makes sense, but some misguided food-safety standards and interpretation of audit checklists have encouraged or required the removal of on-farm conservation plantings such as hedgerows, windbreaks and grassed-waterways, and the destruction of riparian areas and wetlands. Conservation-minded farmers know that conserving these areas on the farm helps protect water and air quality, supports pollinators, and reduces erosion and greenhouse gases. In a climate of food-safety angst, knowing the basics of managing crops and conservation practices to address food safety can go a long way in maintaining onfarm conservation plantings while reducing the risk of pathogen contamination.
It is highly unlikely that farmers would ever intentionally sell contaminated produce. In the past, it was long held that common sense approaches were sufficient to ensure produce did not have food-borne pathogens. Animals were discouraged from production areas because they damaged crops. The potential for animal manures applied as fertilizers and soil amendments to result in water and crop contamination with human pathogens was well recognized. However, in 2006, everything changed when an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 was traced back to a farm on California’s Central coast, the center of the state’s freshcut salad industry. While it was never unequivocally determined how the spinach became contaminated, non-native feral pigs, contaminated irrigation water, and adjacent cattle operations were all considered as possible sources. All wildlife and the habitat they occupied became scrutinized by public health, academia, and especially the leafy greens industry