Launching The First Food Safety Certification For Indoor-Grown Greens

Image sourced from the CEA Food Safety Coalition

Image sourced from the CEA Food Safety Coalition


Editor’s note: The following information is derived from an interview Agritecture conducted with Marni Karlin, Executive Director of the CEA Food Safety Coalition.

Food safety concerns have been on the rise ever since the Thanksgiving 2018 romaine recall. Inspired by this changing focus towards food safety, the CEA Food Safety Coalition has announced the first-ever food safety certification program specifically designed for indoor-grown leafy greens. 

The new standard champions CEA-grown produce as a critical component of safe and secure domestic food supply, especially in times of business disruption as experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
— Marni Karlin, Executive Director of the CEA Food Safety Coalition

Marni shares that “the impetus for the Coalition was a series of industry-crippling lettuce recalls. Shortly after organizing in 2019, the Coalition successfully educated the CDC and FDA about the limited risk of contamination from indoor-produced leafy greens. During the Thanksgiving 2019 romaine recall, those government agencies were transparent that CEA leafy greens were safe and did not extend the recall to them. This enabled retailers to keep CEA-produced greens on the shelves and consumers to safely buy CEA leafy greens for their families.”

Because the advances in controlled environment leafy greens agriculture have surpassed current regulation and safety standards, it’s difficult to accurately map CEA production regulations. As a result, the team faced a huge challenge in “coming up with a standard that could reflect the realities of the variety of production processes included in CEA - from greenhouses to vertical farming and from aeroponic to hydroponic to aquaponic. Our team worked hard with representatives from each production practice and researchers and retailers, and standards experts to ensure we developed a meaningful standard that could apply across the board.”

But, why do we need a separate certification program for just indoor-grown produce?

Image sourced from the CEA Food Safety Coalition

Image sourced from the CEA Food Safety Coalition

In taking a technology-based approach to food production, CEA-grown produce has different variables affecting food’s safety when compared to traditional field-grown produce. Marni comments, “current food safety standards were written for the field, and many don't adequately address the unique attributes of controlled indoor environments. As a whole, controlled environment agriculture is not well known by the general public. Few people understand the difference between CEA leafy greens and other produce and how CEA leafy greens respond to many of their desires for local, pesticide-free produce.”

Since crops are grown indoors, there “is no need for pesticides, and crops are unaffected by climate or weather.” This is important because “traditional food safety risk profiles associated with conventional farming include examining the physical hazards and microbial hazards from water use, herbicide, and pesticide use, and impact from animals and animal byproducts. These do not impact CEA growers in the same way, if at all.” As a result, a separate set of guidelines is needed.

What impacts does the program have?

This new certification process and the accompanying on-pack seal not only help bring awareness around food safety in CEA, it “helps to unify CEA growers while also differentiating them from traditional field agriculture. It also better informs consumers and provides a quick-glance image to know when produce has been grown safely indoors, with a high standard of quality and without some of the hazards of the field, such as potential contamination from animal byproducts.”

Building on the impact on producers and entrepreneurs, Marni adds that “the Leafy Green Module will set a new industry standard for CEA-grown produce while driving consumer awareness of the innovations happening in indoor agriculture today. It will allow producers to adhere to a standard tailored to indoor production and give incoming entrepreneurs guidance on the measures they'll need to meet to align with the existing industry. And it will continue to educate consumers - who are always looking for safe, nutritious produce for their families - that CEA leafy greens that are certified CEA Safe are an excellent choice.”

What does the program specifically assess?

The certification program is available to all CEA FSC members for a nominal cost, and an external audit to the standard must be completed on an annual basis. The growers are assessed across four key areas: hazard analysis, water, site control, and pesticide and herbicide use.

  1. For hazard analysis, each “certified producer must have a site-specific hazard analysis that covers all potential hazards associated with its practices - and particularly, the use of water, nutrients, growing media, seeds, inputs, site control, and other relevant factors.” 

  2. Since water plays a huge role in crop production, whether it be in CEA or field-based agriculture, it couldn’t be left out of the equation. Marni comments that “CEA producers use water differently than field producers. Many CEA producers have recirculating water systems, and water must be assessed throughout its life-cycle - and at any potential contact point with plants and with food contact surfaces. The use of recirculating water requires a continuing hazard analysis. It also requires zone-based environmental monitoring based on company-specific risk assessment.”

  3. Next up is site control. Dissimilar to field-based production, “CEA food safety assessments must consider various site control and system design issues. All food contact surfaces and adjacent food contact surfaces, including plant containers, must be considered and associated with potential farm physical hazards, including lighting, robotics, sensors, equipment and utensils, etc.”

  4. Lastly, pesticide and herbicide use. CEA-produced greens generally don’t need or use pesticides or herbicides. “The CEA Leafy Greens Module evaluates the potential risk of pesticide contamination and addresses if residue testing is required based on the site-specific hazard analysis.”

As a result, “the program addresses the unique attributes of CEA-grown produce, including different food safety risk profiles” that don’t apply to field-based agriculture.

Consumer interest in food labels is high and shows a genuine desire to shop smarter. The will is there, but the food sector is missing a critical education opportunity. For consumers to truly make informed purchasing decisions, we need to explain what the labels mean, the process of certification, and which labels they can trust.
— Marni Karlin, Executive Director of the CEA Food Safety Coalition


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