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Crops and Flood Waters – Is The Food Safe?

Posted in E. coli,Food Safety on October 19, 2018

The southern states have been slammed lately with one hurricane or tropical storm after another. It seems like we take a breath and there will be another one coming or stirring around in the ocean and we are waiting to see where it is going to strike. Crops and flood waters can be a concern, with E. coli and other issues.  

Hurricane Florence was a dodged bullet for us in Virginia. We didn’t get so lucky with Hurricane Michael. These floods bring so many concerns from the safety of drinking water to mold growing on literally everything. We are also left wondering about the safety of crops that are grown locally and in the other states that have been hit so hard. And as the rumors pour in, people are concerned if their food is safe.

Being a farmer is tough work; a job that I say I would love to have but it often comes with heartache when a storm comes through and you lose often years of hard work. The recent storms brought loss that will cost millions to get back, but also there are some things that only time can repair and with some aging farmers time is something that there just isn’t enough of. Social media accounts have been filled with photos of damaged farm lands including apple orchards with literally acres of apples laying on the ground often beaten and bruised beyond anything we would bring into our homes to consume. The pecan crops were heavily damaged in Georgia as well and many farmers were unable to harvest crops prior to the storms coming through because they were securing their own homes for the impending weather event.

The FDA has given us some thoughts about the storms and crops that have been hit with flood damage, but let us not forget that not only flooding damaged crops but winds wreaked havoc on them as well.

What Should Farmers Do?

Safety of food crops when flood waters contacted the edible portions of the crops

If the edible portion of a crop is exposed to flood waters, it is considered adulterated under section 402(a)(4) (21 U.S.C. 342(a)(4)) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and should not enter human food channels. There is no practical method of reconditioning the edible portion of a crop that will provide a reasonable assurance of human food safety. Therefore, the FDA recommends that these crops be disposed of in a manner that ensures they are kept separate from crops that have not been flood damaged to avoid adulterating “clean” crops

Section A applies to ALL food crops, including:

  • Surface crops such as leafy greens, tomatoes, string beans, berries, and corn;
  • Underground crops, such as peanuts, potatoes, carrots, and garlic;
  • Crops with a hard outer skin or shell, such as watermelon and winter squash
  • Grains, nuts, corns, and similar products stored in bulk

For crops that were in or near flooded areas but where flood waters did NOT contact the edible portions of the crops, the growers should evaluate the safety of the crops for human consumption on a case-by-case basis for possible adulteration.  We encourage growers to work with state regulators and local FDA offices to assess their unique situations and to take into consideration all possible types and routes of contamination from flood waters in determining whether a particular crop is adulterated.

Factors to consider in terms of evaluation may include:

  • Assessment of flood waters
  • Flood waters may have been exposed to sewage, chemicals, heavy metals, pathogenic microorganisms or other contaminants..  In addition, there might have been localized catastrophes such as petroleum leak, chemical spills or other disasters due to flooding.   Therefore, knowledge of the sources of flood waters and any possible upstream contributors of human pathogens and/or chemical contaminants will help evaluate the likelihood of crop contamination by flood waters..
  • Type of crop and stage of growth
  • The likelihood of contamination may be low if:
    • The edible portion of the crop has developed after the flood water receded, or
    • The lowest edible portion of the crop was above the floodwaters level with minimum risk of contamination due to splashing;
    • and
    • The crop can be harvested without cross-contamination from nearby environment, including flooded soil and flooded portion of the crop.

FDA recommends that, depending on the results of the assessment described above, the growers consider testing any one or more contaminants, as needed, to determine the suitability for human food use.  Sampling should be representative of the crop being evaluated and testing appropriate for the specific crop and flood situation. FDA recommends that growers discuss their testing plans with state and local FDA regulators and technical specialists for case-specific evaluations.

These situations do not just end with current crops though. The land can be damaged as well and before planting the soil must be tested, too especially if the flood waters have not receded or if the land is very wet. Again time comes into play because the crops may not have time to grow and mature in time for a harvest. This happens locally with corn here in Virginia. Often a second planting is unable to happen because there is just not enough time.

Ensuring that crop foods affected by floodwaters are safe to eat is just another farming stress and for that I have to say that today and every single day we thank our farmers. Farmers are told to use a 30 feet buffer zone between contaminated and non-contaminated crops to keep them separated. Farmers are also urged to check their wells if they were under water and to have the water tested by a local extension office to ensure that the water that is often used for crops is safe to consume.

Our thoughts remain with everyone who has been affected by the recent storm events in the United States and beyond. These storms often leave a lifetime of devastation and memories behind and they take a lot of time and effort to clean up afterwards, especially in farming communities. The loss of crops and even most recently animals put a financial burden on everyone.

By: Samantha Cooper, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)