How do we ensure food safety without sacrificing environmental quality? That is the question scientists, government regulators, environmentalists and members of the fresh produce industry are trying to answer.

At the Coordinated Management of Water Quality and Food Safety Conference, held in San Luis Obispo April 23-25, more than 100 leaders in water quality and food safety from throughout the nation gathered to develop strategies to protect both the environment and fresh produce. The problem is complex because scientists haven't definitively identified how disease-causing bacteria has gotten onto leafy greens, and how changes in farming practices thought to reduce incidence of the bacteria might affect other parts of the ecosystem.

In the interest of consumer health, buyers of fresh leafy greens have set rules to prevent crops from being contaminated with disease-causing bacteria including E. coli O157:H7. Some of these rules seem to conflict with farm management practices designed to preserve water quality. For example, leaving 800 feet of bare soil along a field enables growers to spot the footprints of animals that may carry harmful bacteria. With this in mind, growers have been asked to remove vegetation between their crops and streamsvegetation that helps keep soil from eroding into the waterway. While everyone desires a safe food supply, situations like this have prompted growers, conservation planners, water quality regulators and environmentalists to ask for scientific data demonstrating the effectiveness of such measures.

"Sound science is critical to developing preventive food safety measures that are in concert with promoting water quality and conservation efforts," said Sherri McGarry, acting center emergency coordinator for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "This conference was an important step in bringing the stakeholders together to identify and prioritize the research needs in these areas."

Even before E.coli O157:H7 in fresh spinach and lettuce resulted in illness and death in 2006, the fresh produce industry has sought to reduce the potential for pathogen contamination. Policymakers have debated regulations to promote food safety. Growers do their best to produce a safe crop without affecting the waterways. Researchers try to advise on best practices based on science, but have found scientific data gaps. At the conference, the different groups explored the challenges they face and current scientific information, promoting a better understanding of the issues involved in safeguarding leafy green vegetables and water quality.

Participants discussed cooperation to help others achieve their objectives as well as their own, and identified critical areas where additional research is needed to support regulations and industry policies.

The conference concluded with a consensus that additional short-term and long-term research is needed with respect to pathogens including E. coli O157:H7, the effectiveness of soil and water conservation practices, and the role of domestic and wild animals in transferring pathogens to crops.

An important result of the meeting was the collective recognition that the complex nature of food safety will require the scientific, regulatory and food distribution communities to coordinate with people they traditionally haven't worked with.

"The value in each person striving to connect beyond their current sphere of influence cannot be underestimated," observed Mary Bianchi, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor and one of the conference coordinators.

The three-day conference, which included farm visits, was organized by UC Cooperative Extension, the Southern San Luis Obispo-Santa Barbara County Agricultural Watershed Coalition, and the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at UC Davis. Planning partners included the Agricultural Water Quality Alliance, California Department of Food and Agriculture, California Department of Health Services, California Lettuce Research Board, Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, Davis Fresh Technologies, International Fresh-cut Produce Association, Produce Marketing Association, Raley's Fine Family of Stores, Scientific Certification Programs, United Fresh Produce Association, UC Riverside, and Western Growers Association.

Representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service and Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service, California Department of Food and Agriculture, State Water Resources Control Board, Regional Water Quality Control Board, as well as growers and other interested individuals also attended.

Conference attendees will be surveyed to prioritize action items and research. Results will be published in the conference proceedings in October.