Combining Sustainability and Food Safety Audits Can Help Educate Consumers

A citrus grower participates in an inspection

A citrus grower participates in an inspection

Food Safety audits have become standard in agricultural production.  Retailers require food safety audits for growing, harvesting, packing, processing, cooling, and distribution.  Good Agricultural Practices and Good Manufacturing Practices are the base standards of all audits, whether the audit is certified or not.

The agricultural industry has always practiced sustainability in various ways.  Keeping agricultural production lands viable is a must for the future of the industry.  Now, growers and producers see the value in educating retailers and consumers about the sustainability practices used in food production.  Documentation of these practices, against a set of accepted standards, may help provide consumers more transparency regarding the practices used in both organic and conventional food production.  

New to the sustainability audit scene is a scheme driven by retail.  Whole Foods Market is pilot testing standards to be known as “Responsibly Grown”.   The audit program is being developed by The IPM Institute[PKD1] , in conjunction with Whole Foods Market.  The audit measures supplier performance on a designated range of sustainability topics, primarily related to protecting human health and the environment.  The “Responsibly Grown” audit requires both a certified third partyfood safety audit and, in addition, reporting on adherence to sustainability requirements.

The “Responsibly Grown” audit encompasses multiple topics, including Social Accountability and Farm Worker welfare, as well as the environmental topics shown below.  These topics, are audited through documentation and visual inspection.

Pest Management is vital in both Food Safety and Sustainability.  The guidelines put forward in “Responsibly Grown” are based on a goal of reducing pesticide use through various methods including crop rotation, application equipment calibration, limiting high risk pesticides, using non-chemical controls, and limiting pesticide drift.  These techniques are not new to agriculture, and meet industry guidelines and procedures.

Pollinators are a necessity in many agricultural crops.  Protection of pollinators may include providing refuge for pollinators along roadsides, field borders, and under power lines as well as identification of pollinator nesting sites, managed hives, and not applying pollinator toxic pesticides during crop bloom.

Soil Health encompasses erosion management through contour cropping, cover crops, crop rotation, mulches and protected production, such as greenhouses and hydroponic growing.   Additionally, soil health is to be assessed using indicators such as water holding capacity, earthworm count, soil compaction, and infiltration rate.  Micronutrients (boron, chloride, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum and zinc) are to be assessed periodically. 

Water Management plan would  prevent or reduce the discharge of wastewater fromtail water, aquaculture use, pesticide application, frost protection, produce washing and cooling water and other sources into natural water bodies and the associated ecosystems from discharge contamination .  Other components of the plan would include water conservation measures such as flow meters, laser leveling, rainwater storage, variable rate irrigation, use of tertiary treated water and draught-resistant plant varieties.  Additional components of water management are watershed planning with regulatory agencies and irrigation efficiency. 

Energy Conservation and Air Quality Management are included in the pilot “Responsibly Grown” audit.  Practices included in this standard are reduced use of motorized equipment, efficient irrigation pumps, no or low tillage, tractor maintenance and employee training on energy conservation.   Use of sustainable energy sources are tracked in this standard, including wind, solar or geothermal.  Air quality management measures   to minimize particulate matter, gases and odors released into the air may include erosion prevention, timing of operations (no tillage in high winds), careful handling and storage of bulk materials to reduce odors, equipment modifications to reduce emissions, paved roads, low-emission utilities and wind breaks.

Waste Management is another component of the “Responsibly Grown” pilot audit.  Recycling to divert materials from landfills and incinerators is important in waste management.  Packaging materials should be biodegradable, reusable, and recyclable or made of recycled materials.  Packaging with paraffin alternative coatings may be certified and recyclable.

Sustainability audits have not reached the status of food safety audits, but retailer interest in these audits is growing.  The agricultural industry continues to work toward meshing food safety management practices and sustainable practices together for the benefit of agriculture

For more details on the “Responsibly Grown” audit, visit www.wholefoodsmarket.com/responsibly-grown.

By Connie Quinlan