ANAHEIM, Calif.  — Finding a science-based formula that will allow both food safety and environmental concerns to be reflected in farming practices is the new challenge for growers.

An Oct. 4 Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit workshop, “Food Safety and the Environment: A Delicate Balancing Act” featured a panel moderated by Hank Giclas, vice president of science and technology for Western Growers, Irvine, Calif. and included perspectives from a grower, an environmental group representative, a value-added marketer and a foodservice buyer.

The workshop looked at whether issues such as buffer zones, animal fences and traps and other food safety measures are compatible with environmental and sustainability standards.

Growers simply want to know from buyers what the rules are for both sustainability and food safety, said Tim York, president of foodservice distributor Markon Cooperative, Salinas, Calif.

“In the end food safety has to be our trump card, but many of us would believe that the environment doesn’t have to be a loser at the same time and we really can strike this balance,” York said.

York said buyers demand that growers protect the environment but at the same time they will not want a box of spring mix with a frog in it.

Mark Teixeira, general manager of Teixeira Farms Inc., Santa Maria, Calif., said it is important for buyers and consumers to remember that fields are not a completely controllable environment. Growers will want to eliminate the potential source of E. coli, for example, by keeping deer out of fields with fences.

“This stuff doesn’t grow in the backroom of the grocery store and we have to make sure we remember and we can see that,” he said. “I can’t put a sign up to the birds and say, ‘This is a no fly zone.’”

Food safety, sustainability and social accountability are all elements of buyer demands on suppliers, said Mike Burness, vice president of global quality and food safety for Chiquita Brands International, Cincinnati.

“What we want to do is really focus on the science (of sustainability), as we have in food safety,” he said. Burness said Chiquita has been involved in environmental sustainability in the cultivation of bananas for years in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and the Rainforest Alliance.

“It is possible to get that balance, and we need to start integrating those same strategies and thoughts into the North American produce agriculture,” Burness said. “It’s a very difficult equation.”

He said growers in one region may not share the same control measures as growers in another region.

Teixeira said customers should not have different rules that make it impossible for growers to comply efficiently.

“Let’s make a set of rules and implement those to the grower,” he said.  “The grower is more than willing to do it; we’re the biggest environmentalists there are.”

Teixeira said some growers have to undergo as many as 15 to 20 food safety audits a year, and some auditors lack knowledge farming operations.

He said standard rules are needed for domestic and imported suppliers.

“How can you carve out California and Arizona and say that you are going to comply with these rules but everybody else is wide open?” he said.

Teixeira said buyers shouldn’t have one standard for California growers and another standard for local producers.

York said he favors the expansion of science-based standards of the California and Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements with a national leafy greens marketing agreement.

York said some growers have referred to unidentified buyers requiring “supermetrics” — standards above and beyond the California/Arizona marketing agreement.  For example, some buyers have requested expansion in the “buffer zones” for no apparent scientific reason.    

“Food safety metrics that are required should deliver safe food as opposed to create a sense for lawyers sitting in an office somewhere that it is safer,” said Eric Holst, managing director of the center for conservation incentives for the Environmental Defense Fund, New York.

Holst also said an open dialogue about decreasing the environmental effect of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement is important.

Burness said Chiquita doesn’t have any environmental requirements for its U.S. growers.

“We do think that in the future there is an opportunity to work with the growers, the environmental groups and academia to find that balance and maximize the benefits of food safety and environmental sustainability," he said.

“We want to make sure we have the right science and the right balance filtered into that food safety stuff before we take that next step,” Burness said. “We think we can absolutely co-manage them.”

York also said Markon does not have a sustainability program yet but is consulting with environmental groups on the issue.