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Growers form controlled-environment agriculture safety group

A new food safety group for controlled-environmental agriculture will sprout in June in Chicago, according to leading CEA growers. “The intent is to establish food safety standards,” says a spokesman.

Brightfarms, AeroFarms and Little Leaf Farms are the controlled-environmental growers getting behind the new food safety group. The first meeting will be during the United Fresh 2018 Expos June 25-27 in Chicago.

Brightfarms, AeroFarms, and Little Leaf Farms are among the companies that have made the technology-based agriculture commercially viable. The three companies have formed a coalition to organize the new food safety group.

“The coalition’s exact structure will be developed when all of the member organizations meet at United Fresh,” the spokesman told Food Safety News. They want the new group to establish food standards to protect consumer health as its first order of business.

“Agriculture tech” is another name for the fledgling industry, which is capturing the attention of investors. Brightfarms, for example, raised $30.1 million last year to fund its business plan that calls for high-tech greenhouses growing fresh produce in U.S. urban areas.

Controlled-environmental agriculture is helping grow a locally produced food market that USDA predicts will reach $20 billion in sales by 2019, up from $12 billion in 2014.

“The growing methods in our industry are different as compared to centralized and long-distance field-grown produce,” said Brightfarms CEO Paul Lightfoot. “This coalition provides an opportunity for all brands in the space to collaborate to further protect consumers by establishing standards and sharing insights.”

“This is a critically important step in maintaining consumer confidence and supporting the growth of our industry,” he added.

Controlled-environmental ag is tiny compared to “America’s salad bowl” in California. The state produces more than 70 percent of U.S. iceberg and romaine lettuce and 86 percent of the leaf lettuce.

After an outbreak of E. coli O157: H7 in 2006 that involved contaminated spinach, California growers, and national retailers formed the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement. The LGMA is a food safety program that uses government audits and requires 100 percent compliance with science-based farming practices.

California and Arizona growers adopted the program to avoid problems that might arise when a cattle ranch leases land to a spinach grower, which likely caused the 2006 outbreak.

Both United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marketing Association support the new food safety initiative for “agriculture tech.”

“There is a real need for a group of this kind that enables the industry to combine their collective learning to develop and advance food safety practices,” said Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology at United Fresh.

“We frequently get questions from CEA growers with food safety in mind and this coalition will serve as a resource to not only these growers but all companies in the industry.”

Bob Whitaker, PMA’s chief science and technology officer, said the organization for controlled-environment growers “will benefit the consumer and public health.”

AeroFarms CEO Davis Rosenberg said the new group will elevate the critical topic of food safety for both retail partners and, ultimately, the consumer.

Since 2004, Newark, NJ-based AeroFarms has built indoor water-efficient vertical farms in populated areas that are far more productive than field-grown agriculture.

New England-based Little Leaf Farms uses technologically advanced greenhouses to grow baby lettuces.

The CEA produce industry is primarily made up of brands using hydroponic, aeroponic or aquaponic methods. CEA producers who want to join the new group and help with the standards to protect consumer health may write: ceafoodsafety@gmail.com

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