A new report for the Food Safety Project at Georgetown University has found growers along California’s central coast still face a barrage of conflicting food safety regulations that provide uncertain benefits and may harm the environment.

Some major findings of the report, prepared by The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, Va., with a broad coalition of produce industry trade and environmental groups, as well as food safety experts, included growers “yielding to tremendous pressure from auditors, inspectors, and other food safety professionals to change on-farm management practices” resulting in effects to water quality, removal of wetland, riparian and other habitat, and elimination of wildlife on and near farm land.

The diversity of the report’s advisers and their spirit of collaboration are some of its greatest strengths, said Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.

“That’s really critical because a lot of times it gets somewhat acrimonious in these discussions,” Horsfall said.

The report, completed over nine months, covers California’s major coastal growing areas including the Salinas Valley.

The researchers say their study is the most comprehensive on the topic to date, drawing from more than expert 100 interviews, observations at 68 farms, two large-scale surveys of growers, and a review of more than 250 scientific studies since 2007.

The study “really does identify the quandary growers face,” said Tim York, president of Markon Cooperative, Salinas, and an adviser of the study.

That quandary, York said, often leaves growers with a choice between farming to strict food safety standards or maintaining conservation practices that may conflict with the expectations of buyers and auditors.

Christina Fischer, Monterey project manager for The Nature Conservancy of California, said the solution put forward in the report to these conflicts between food safety and conservation is the idea of co-management or reducing bacterial contamination on produce while still preserving water, soil and air quality.

“This is a breakthrough step toward resolving these conflicts and showing California farms can remain healthy,” Fisher said.

The report also shows 49% of respondents in the 2009 growers survey reported “being pressured to exclude wildlife, remove noncrop vegetation, and/or remove water bodies from their fields, resulting in substantial on-farm changes.”

According to the report in interviews done last spring, large scale conventional growers also reported being encouraged by auditors to remove vegetation on their farms planted for water quality improvements because they could harbor wildlife.

The growers also used copper sulfate to eliminate amphibians because the auditors wanted to see “clean ponds.”

The need for better science on how pathogens enter leafy greens and what risks wildlife pose are still not known, and the report is meant to educate legislators and produce buyers about this, Fischer said.

“Our purpose for this study is making sure everyone has the best available information at hand as we move forward,” Fischer said.