Repeat outbreaks pressure produce industry to step up safety
By CANDICE CHOI
AP Food & Health Writer
Friday, November 30
NEW YORK (AP) — After repeated food poisoning outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce, the produce industry is confronting the failure of its own safety measures in preventing contaminations.
The E. coli outbreak announced just before Thanksgiving follows one in the spring that sickened more than 200 people and killed five, and another last year that sickened 25 and killed one. No deaths have been reported in the latest outbreak, but the dozens of illnesses highlight the challenge of eliminating risk for vegetables grown in open fields and eaten raw, the role of nearby cattle operations that produce huge volumes of manure and the delay of stricter federal food safety regulations.
A contested aspect of the regulation, for example, would require testing irrigation water for E. coli. The Food and Drug Administration put the measure on hold when the produce industry said such tests wouldn’t necessarily help prevent outbreaks. Additional regulations on sanitation for workers and equipment — other potential sources of contamination — only recently started being implemented.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said he thinks the combination of rules, once fully in place, will make vegetables safer to eat.
“I don’t think any one element of this is going to be the magic bullet,” Gottlieb said.
Health officials say improved detection may make outbreaks seem more frequent. Still, that is intensifying pressure on growers and regulators to prevent, catch and contain contamination.
It’s not yet known how romaine got contaminated in the latest outbreak.
The spring outbreak was traced to romaine from Yuma, Arizona. Irrigation water tainted with manure was identified as a likely culprit, and investigators noted the presence of a large animal feeding operation nearby.
Subsequently, an industry agreement in Arizona and California was adjusted to expand buffer zones between vegetable fields and livestock. The industry says the change was in place for lettuce now being grown in Yuma, which hasn’t been implicated in the latest outbreak. But Trevor Suslow of the Produce Marketing Association said there isn’t consensus about the exact distances that might effectively prevent contamination.
He noted specific buffer zones aren’t required by the new federal rules on produce safety.
“They look to the industry to determine what is the appropriate distance,” Suslow said.
Growers in Yuma also started treating irrigation water that would touch plant leaves with chlorine to kill potential contaminants, Suslow said. But he said such treatment raises concerns about soil and human health.
Meanwhile, the proximity of produce fields to cattle operations is likely to continue posing a problem. Travis Forgues of the milk producer Organic Valley noted consolidation in the dairy industry is leading to bigger livestock operations that produce massive volumes of manure.
Already, the industry agreement in Arizona and California requires leafy green growers to test water for generic E. coli.
But James Rogers, director of food safety research at Consumer Reports, said it’s important to make water testing a federal requirement. Since romaine is often chopped up and bagged, a single contaminated batch from one farm that skips testing could make a lot of people sick, he said.
Teressa Lopez of the Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement also said federal regulation can ensure greater compliance, even though the industry agreement has stricter measures.
Despite industry measures implemented after a spinach outbreak more than a decade ago, health officials noted this month there have been 28 E. coli outbreaks linked to leafy greens since 2009.
The produce industry says the failure to prevent the Yuma outbreak could also reflect the limitations of testing water for generic E. coli.
Elizabeth Bihn, a food science expert at Cornell University, said the tests look for the amount of fecal matter in water. The problem is, “some feces has pathogens in it, some feces doesn’t,” said Bihn, who is part of a federal program helping farmers comply with the new produce regulations.
Testing for specific E. coli strains that are harmful is more difficult, and it doesn’t rule out the possibility of other harmful bacteria, Bihn said.
Whole-genome sequencing is making it easier to detect outbreaks, which is pressuring the produce industry.
The FDA warned against all romaine last week because it said it was able to identify it as a likely source early enough. The agency narrowed its warning to romaine from California’s Central Coast after the produce industry agreed to label romaine with harvest dates and regions, so people know what’s OK to eat.
The labeling is voluntary, and the industry said it will evaluate whether to extend it to other leafy greens. Gottlieb said improving traceability would allow targeted health alerts that don’t hurt the entire industry. The FDA recently hired a former Walmart executive who used blockchain technology to improve traceability in the retailer’s supply chain.
Stephen Basore, director of food safety at a Florida romaine grower, said he expects more regulations and self-imposed industry guidelines.
“Anytime there is an issue, the immediate response is saying our protocols aren’t enough,” he said.
AP reporter Josh Replogle contributed from Florida.
The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Farm Bureau to celebrate centennial
COLUMBUS, Ohio (OFBF) – Ohio Farm Bureau will hold its 100th annual meeting Dec. 6 and 7 in Columbus. The centennial event’s theme is Celebrating our Past, Creating our Future.
A historical museum will highlight a century of Farm Bureau accomplishments in legislation, business development, cultural and social change, economic and environmental sustainability and celebrate Farm Bureau’s successes through grassroots action.
Among Farm Bureau’s most significant works are the electrification of rural Ohio, the creation of Nationwide Insurance and the preservation of Ohio’s rural landscape.
Nearly 3,000 Farm Bureau members are expected to attend the meeting and a special centennial celebration event. The museum and all convention activities will be held at the Hilton Columbus Downtown and Columbus Convention Center.
Keynote speakers include OFBF President Frank Burkett III, OFBF Executive Vice President Adam Sharp, Nationwide board chairman Tim Corcoran and Nationwide CEO Steve Rasmussen.
Nationwide history and archives center manager Steve Hausfeld will share the presentation “Strong Roots: How Ohio Farm Bureau cultivated the Seed to become Nationwide.”
356 voting delegates will establish the organization’s policies for the coming year. Topics expected to be addressed include the roles of farmers and government in the protection of water quality, protecting the rights of landowners engaged in various energy projects, and farm economic issues including the farm bill, trade and transportation infrastructure.
Elections will be held for board trustees, and the organization’s president, vice president and treasurer will be chosen.
County Farm Bureaus will be recognized for outstanding local programming. Individuals will be honored for their lifelong contributions to Ohio agriculture and Farm Bureau. Young Agricultural Professional leaders and award winners will be acknowledged, and finalists in the Discussion Meet contest will be selected. A fundraising event for the Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation will be held.
Ohio Farm Bureau’s mission is to work together for Ohio farmers to advance agriculture and strengthen our communities. Learn more about the organization and additional centennial activities at ofbf.org.
Why companies should help pay for the biodiversity that’s good for their bottom line
November 30, 2018
Authors: Joanne Burgess, Assistant Professor of Economics, Colorado State University; Edward Barbier, Professor of Economics, Colorado State University
Disclosure statement: The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: Colorado State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
In the “The Lorax,” an entrepreneur regrets wiping out all the make-believe truffala trees by chopping them down to maximize his short-term gains. As the Dr. Seuss tale ends, the Once-ler – the man responsible for this environmental tragedy – tells a young child that “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Likewise, many corporations that profit from nature’s bounty, such as Unilever, Patagonia and Interface, appear to be reaching a similar conclusion. They are realizing that it’s time for the business world to do more about conservation.
We, two economists who have extensively researched natural resources and development, are proposing a new way to solve the problem of species and ecosystem loss. Corporations that benefit from biodiversity could forge what some are calling a “new deal for nature” by paying part of the tab for biodiversity conservation.
Biodiversity, the variety of all natural ecosystems and species, is being lost at an unprecedented rate. According to the recent World Wildlife Fund Living Planet Report, the populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians have fallen by an average of 60 percent in just over 40 years. The scientists Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich and Rodolfo Dirzo have dubbed this decline and an impending wave of extinctions a “biological annihilation.”
We argue that many businesses are threatened by the loss of species and ecosystems, such as declining bee populations and dwindling stocks of fish, forests, wetlands and mangroves. Without an array of ecosystems and species, it’s tough for farmers to grow crops or ranchers to raise animals.
The pharmaceutical industry needs them to make and create drugs. For example, one team of U.S.-based researchers estimates that the pharmaceutical value of marine biodiversity for anti-cancer drug discovery could range from US$563 billion to as much as $5.7 trillion.
Insurance companies depend on coastal wetlands to minimize the impact of big storms. For example, an international group of researchers estimated that preserving one hectare of mangroves in the Philippines yields more than $3,200 in flood-reduction benefits each year.
A global treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity does set worldwide conservation targets. But we believe they may not be ambitious enough. Cristiana Pașca Palmer, who serves as the UN’s biodiversity chief, is considering raising the treaty’s targets to conserve at least half of terrestrial, inland water, coastal, and marine habitats to preserve biodiversity.
But the existing efforts to preserve biodiversity are not only inadequate. They’re underfunded.
New way to pay
Global biodiversity protection requires $100 billion annually, according to a previous study one of us conducted, yet the international community spends up to $10 billion each year on biodiversity conservation.
Much of the world’s biodiversity is in developing countries, which lack the financial wherewithal to adequately conserve it.
The Lorax could speak for the trees, but he lacked the cash to preserve them. Random House Children’s Books
As we have explained with our colleague Thomas J. Dean in Science magazine, we believe that involving businesses in an international environmental agreement could help bridge a chronic funding gap.
A key part of this new deal for nature would be making the corporations that depend on the health of natural ecosystems and species help foot the bill to preserve biodiversity.
Benefiting the bottom line
Why would corporations want to get involved?
First off, it may benefit their bottom line. Big companies depend on robust natural ecosystems systems and individual species.
We calculate that the increase in revenue and profits from biodiversity conservation could generate between $25 billion and $50 billion annually to fund global conservation efforts.
The seafood industry stands to gain $53 billion annually from an increase in marine stocks. This could generate $5 billion to $10 billion each year to spend on preserving biodiversity.
The insurance industry could see an additional $52 billion from increasing the area of protected coastal wetlands with a similar investment.
Agriculture also has an incentive to protect habitats of wild pollinators, who along with managed populations enhance global crop production by an amount a global group of scientists estimates to be worth between $235 billion to $577 billion annually.
What’s more, there is growing evidence that when corporations engage in environmental stewardship, they become more attractive investments and their borrowing costs decline.
Corporate social responsibility
There is a second reason why big companies are sometimes willing to take action and pay to conserve biodiversity: corporate social responsibility, an ethos that builds into business models a commitment to protect the environment and benefit society.
Danone is a leader in this regard. It established the first partnership agreement between a global environmental convention and a private company over 20 years ago.
Since then, the multinational corporation best known for its yogurt and bottled water has promoted and supported the sustainable use and management of wetlands.
Danone, for example, worked with local partners to replant mangroves in approximately 500 Senegalese villages. We believe this reforestation project shows that investments in nature can be sustainable and scalable business models.
Danone, which earned $3 billion in profits in 2017, has its own $80 million “Ecosystem Fund.” It’s just one of an increasing number of companies taking concrete steps toward biodiversity protection, even though they are not required by any law or national policy.
More than 21 national and regional initiatives have been established to encourage partnerships between business and biodiversity conservation. For example, 10 of the 13 biggest seafood companies that control up to 16 percent of global marine catch and 40 percent of the largest and most valuable fisheries have come together to support an ocean stewardship initiative.
Similarly, the International Council of Forest and Paper Associations, which represents the global forest products industry, now engages in sustainable forest management certification.
The total area of forests worldwide deemed to be subject to sustainable practices supplying the industry increased from 62 million hectares, 12 percent of the total global forest area, in 2000, to 310 million hectares in 2015, according to the industry group. That’s more than half of the total global forest area. The annual revenue of the world’s 100 largest global forest, paper and packaging companies is over $300 billion.
A new deal for nature
In addition to creating marine reserves, protecting forests, preserving the habitats of wild pollinators and conserving coastal wetlands, the private sector could also help finance conservation efforts in developing countries.
Based on our calculations, if the seafood sector were to set aside up to 20 percent of the increase in profits it gets from sustainably managing marine biomass stocks, it could conceivably spend up to $10 billion annually for marine biodiversity conservation.
And we estimate that by channeling up to 10 percent of the gains from sustainable forest management, the forest products industry could raise as much as $30 billion each year for investment in increasing protected forest area.
An agricultural sector contribution of around 10 percent of the benefits it derives from wild pollination services would amount to about $20 billion to $60 billion per year in additional financing for the conservation, creation and restoration of wild pollinator habitats.
All told, this business-world support could help close the $100 billion gap in global biodiversity conservation funding. This would go a long way toward slowing, and potentially reversing, biodiversity loss.
There are, of course, barriers to corporate conservation. The costs may be high. It may be hard for to businesses to assess the long-term value of biodiversity conservation benefits and integrate them into investment decisions. And it is possible that some of the corporations that take this step could be at a competitive disadvantage, especially in the short term.
But a number of companies are already showing that they believe investing in ecosystem preservation is worth it. In our view, corporate support for international biodiversity conservation is essential to prevent “biological annihilation.”