United Fresh Live! trade show and conference had an education session about food safety opportunities and challenges with leafy green growers in controlled environment agriculture. ( Amy Sowder )

Salad greens have a soiled reputation because of foodborne illness outbreaks the last few years.

But with indoor leafy greens grown in a controlled environment, there are no wandering deer or agricultural runoff from animal operations to worry about, say the panelists at a June 16 United Fresh LIVE! workshop on the food safety challenges and opportunities unique to leafy greens grown via controlled environment agriculture (CEA). 

“There’s some inherent safety in what we do. If you look at past E. coli outbreaks, it can be traced to, well, poop,” said Michael DeChellis, cofounder of Livingston Greens, an indoor hydroponic herb farm in Livingston, Mont.

Chris Livingston, general counsel at Bowery Farming, New York, and founding member of the CEA Food Safety Coalition, agreed. He said establishing industry standards for CEA food safety and no-need-to-wash label criteria will help build on that consumer trust.

“Food safety is one of our strengths, and we want to highlight that,” Livingston said. “We have an opportunity to even level up.”

The coalition is working with auditing firm NSF International on setting standards for good agricultural practices and food safety certification unique to CEA operations. They’re looking at water, lighting and harvesting methods used in CEA, Livingston said.

Contaminated water is a big root cause of these outbreaks, said Jackie Hawkins, senior manager of food safety at Bright Farms, Irvington, N.Y.

CEA growers typically use potable municipal or well water, but even that water needs regular testing or treatment, Hawkins said.

As far as sanitizing equipment and establishing an environmental monitoring program, it’s best to do a risk assessment first, Hawkins said.

Then break things down into zones, and then collect data.

“Then you’ll know where your areas of weakness are and then sample, sample, sample,” Hawkins said.

Oscar Camacho, president of Superior Food Safety, a consulting company and training center based in Napa, Calif., helps businesses mitigate food safety risks.

“Usually what I find in companies is food safety is delegated to a department, which is a mistake,” Camacho said. “The result is an unbalanced policing system that’s very difficult to maintain. What we propose is that everyone is part of the design according to their job.”

Controlled environment agriculture is a newer, fast-growing industry, and with more contamination outbreaks, retailers look to CEA suppliers as an alternative source, Livingston said.

“And we need to be aligned on what our standards look like; we need to share best practices,” he said. 

Small farming companies can’t do everything, so sharing information has a lot of opportunity, DeChellis said. It would be great to have a playbook, a resource like “Top 10 things that can go wrong in CEA,” he said.

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