Buyers and retailers that require farms to eliminate trees and plants may be boosting, rather than decreasing, the risk of E. coli contamination in leafy greens, according to the Wild Farm Alliance.
According to the non-profit group, requirements imposed by Fresh Express, Walmart and McDonalds, among others, have prompted farms in the nation's "Salad Bowl," California's Salinas Valley, to create buffers between fields and forests of as much as 450 feet. Nearly 90% of Monterey County growers have eliminated habitat and wildlife perceived to be a source of harmful bacteria.
The group contends that the main source of E. coli in leafy greens has been shown to be cattle on neighboring farms, where concentrated manure can contaminate streams, groundwater and irrigation sources. In that case, a strong wild buffer can actually decrease the risk of contamination because plants can filter certain pollutants from the water, and tamp down the spread of contaminated dust.
"It does not make sense to require bare earth between crops and habitat, if food safety is the goal," said Jo Ann Baumgartner, director of the Wild Farm Alliance. "Scientists have known for years that non-crop vegetation can effectively filter dust- and water-borne pathogens."
The issue of contamination has been a concern since 2006, when contaminated spinach sickened Americans across the country and led to a massive and costly recall.
Together with Defenders of Wildlife, the alliance is asking Congress to include provisions in the Farm Bill that would create incentives for retaining wild habitat around farms, regulate marketing agreements between farms and the shippers and buyers of their produce, and educate key players about the role that wild buffers play in food safety.
"Windbreaks, hedgerows, habitat along drainages, creeks and rivers, wetland vegetation, and healthy grazing lands serve as the critical lungs and kidneys of the landscape, filtering pollutants from air and water before they reach food crops. These are all methods recommended by the USDA," Baumgartner said, noting that buffers also protect downstream water quality and provide habitat for wildlife.
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