Food safety certification debuts for indoor-grown leafy greens


Dive Brief:

  • The CEA Food Safety Coalition (CEA FSC) has launched what it said is the first food safety certification program designed specifically for leafy greens grown using controlled environment agriculture (CEA), according to a press release. In these operations, plants are grown year-round through hydroponic, aeroponic or aquaponic methods, many without pesticides and protected from the weather.
  • CEA FSC’s Leafy Green Module uses science-based standards to assess an operation’s food safety practices in areas including water and pesticide use, site control and hazard analysis. Companies that pass the module will be able to use the CEA food safety certified seal on their product packaging.
  • Members of the CEA industry first proposed the program in 2019 to distinguish indoor-grown greens from those raised in fields. The food safety certification has debuted as the leafy greens industry struggles to get control of a series of E. coli outbreaks, which have sickened many and led to a number of fatalities over the past few years. 

Dive Insight:

The Food and Drug Administration recently published the results of a multiyear investigation into the leafy greens industry after a 2018 E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce that caused 210 illnesses in 36 states. Some considered the administration’s report a warning shot that the FDA intends to take regulatory action against the industry if outbreaks continue

As the industry scrambles for solutions, some consumers have grown skeptical of whether consuming leafy greens is worth the risk of contamination — with real implications for produce growers. After the 2018 outbreak, romaine lettuce sales plummeted 45% compared to the year prior, according to Nielsen data cited by The Wall Street Journal, while overall lettuce sales dropped 27%.

Indoor farming companies are hoping to offer consumers another option when it comes to getting their greens. CEA cultivation is said to allow for greater control over growing conditions. This not only includes temperature, humidity and light, but also enhanced biosecurity. Many indoor farming operations market their produce as having never been exposed to pesticides or herbicides due to the tightly controlled environment.

Certification programs can provide consumers with reassurance about the quality and transparency of their food. The fact that the CEA FSC program is maintained and enforced by a neutral third party could help consumers feel more comfortable relying on the certification compared to the brand’s own claims about its products.

A program tailored specifically to indoor cultivation practices helps ensure that the right factors are being assessed. Due to the openness, regular field cultivation exposes crops to threats like contaminated water, herbicide and pesticide residues and contamination from animals. CEA FSC’s module will assess hazards associated with water, nutrients, growing media, seeds, inputs, site control and more. Systems using recirculating water will require continuing hazard analyses while all food contact surfaces and adjacent surfaces will need to be assessed for contamination risks.

The standard also creates an opportunity for the booming number of indoor farming companies entering the market to differentiate themselves. Venture capitalists have been pouring millions of dollars into a number of startups. AeroFarms — a CEA FSC founding member — announced recently it would go public by merging with Spring Valley Acquisition, a publicly traded special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), at a $1.2 billion valuation. This week in Virginia, the company announced it had broken ground on the world’s largest aeroponic indoor farm.

Over the past year, coalition founding members Revol Greens raised a $68 million round to build an 80-acre lettuce greenhouse, and hydroponic greenhouse startup BrightFarms snagged a $100 million investment to expand its line of branded packaged salads. AppHarvest raised money and announced plans to go public and Plenty Unlimited received $140 million in funds. And this past December, Gotham Greens raised $87 million for its high-tech hydroponic greenhouses.