SPAIN – A collaborative effort spearheaded by academic, industry, and regulatory stakeholders has shed light on the pressing need to fortify food safety protocols and mitigate microbial hazards within CEA systems.

Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) is a burgeoning sector reforming the way we cultivate crops, yet with its rapid growth comes the imperative to address critical food safety concerns.

Led by Dr. Ana Allende and her esteemed colleagues at the Center for Applied Soil Science and Biology, Segura of the Spanish National Research Council (CEBAS-CSIC), research funded by the Center for Produce Safety (CPS) has embarked on a quest to unravel microbial risk factors within CEA environments.

Through sampling and analysis, the project endeavors to furnish the industry with invaluable data to inform the development of robust control measures aimed at safeguarding food safety.

While the research may be conducted in Spain, its implications resonate far beyond national borders, offering actionable insights applicable across Europe and the U.S.

With a primary focus on leafy greens, the findings hold relevance for an array of CEA crops, underscoring the universal significance of bolstering food safety practices within the burgeoning sector.

From sampling to sanitation

The research initiative, characterized by its comprehensive approach, spans critical facets of CEA production.

Researchers aim to discern how varying practices and environmental conditions impact pathogen levels by sampling diverse facilities across seasons and production systems.   

Informed by two rounds of sampling, researchers have gleaned invaluable insights into pathogen prevalence, with initial findings revealing lower-than-expected levels of Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes.

Undeterred, plans are underway for a third sampling round during winter, aiming to capture seasonal variations in pathogen dynamics.

Moreover, the project endeavors to assess the efficacy of sanitation strategies deployed in CEA facilities, scrutinizing their ability to mitigate transient and persistent pathogens such as Salmonella and L. monocytogenes.

Mapping contamination routes

An aspect of the research involves utilizing CEBAS-CSIC’s pilot greenhouse to map out traffic patterns from production facilities to leafy greens.

By inoculating workers’ boots and trolley wheels with DNA-barcoded surrogate organisms, researchers aim to trace potential contamination routes, offering crucial insights into preventive measures.

This innovative approach promises to enhance our understanding of pathogen dissemination within CEA environments, guiding the implementation of targeted interventions to curb microbial hazards.

Tailoring solutions to CEA dynamics

In a recent publication in the Journal of Food Protection, the critical food safety gaps and pressing needs within the Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) sector were brought to the forefront, echoing the sentiments of academic, industry, and regulatory stakeholders who convened at the Strategizing to Advance Future Extension and Research (S.A.F.E.R.) CEA conference in April 2023.

Held at Ohio State University’s Ohio CEA Research Center, the conference served as a pivotal platform for stakeholders to collaboratively identify key challenges and chart a path forward to enhance food safety protocols in CEA systems.

Among the primary themes discussed at the conference was the imperative of conducting comprehensive risk assessments tailored to the unique characteristics of CEA, encompassing specific crops, cultivars, and production systems.

Acknowledging the multifaceted nature of CEA operations, stakeholders underscored the need to consider intrinsic and extrinsic factors such as pH, nutrients, temperature, humidity, and lighting systems, in order to devise targeted preventive measures and mitigation strategies.

Filling knowledge gaps

A crucial aspect highlighted by stakeholders was the necessity for robust research initiatives aimed at addressing fundamental knowledge gaps within the CEA sector.

Key research priorities include seed testing and treatment protocols to mitigate pathogenic contamination, assessment of shelf life and microbial quality of soilless substrates, and exploration of alternative pathogen inactivation methods such as hot water, steam, ultraviolet-C (UV-C), ozone, and radiation.

Furthermore, stakeholders emphasized the critical importance of understanding key food safety risk factors within water and microbial ecosystems inherent to CEA environments.

Recognizing the pivotal role of education and outreach in fostering a culture of food safety within the CEA community, stakeholders underscored the need for targeted initiatives aimed at educators, the workforce, regulators, and academia. From workforce development programs to campaigns aimed at raising awareness among youth and funding agencies, stakeholders advocated for comprehensive training programs and educational resources tailored to the diverse needs of the CEA workforce.

Central to the discourse was the recognition of collaboration as a linchpin for driving progress in CEA food safety. Stakeholders emphasized the importance of fostering partnerships across stakeholder groups to leverage collective expertise and resources.

By fostering collaborative networks and sharing best practices, stakeholders aim to catalyze meaningful advancements in CEA food safety protocols and practices.

For all the latest food safety news from Africa and the World, subscribe to our NEWSLETTER, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our YouTube channel.