In the past couple of weeks three events have transpired that all fall under the heading of food safety, aquaponics, and how the public perceives the two.

1) The E. coli outbreak in Europe highlights yet again the risks in our current food supply system. In an excerpt from an NYT article run June 6, 2011: “The hit-and-miss struggle of German health authorities to identify the contaminated food behind one of the deadliest E. coli outbreaks in recent years underscores the difficulties of following a pathogen through the complex food supply chain. Sometimes it feels as if we are playing Russian roulette with our food supply.

But there is a way to be absolutely certain that there is no possibility of contracting e-coli: grow aquaponically. Fish are cold-blooded animals, and as such cannot host E. coli or Salmonella pathogens. The following is from a Sept/Oct, 2009 article in Maximum Yield Magazine by Dr. Michael A. Nichols titled ‘Aquaponics: Clean, Green and Organic’.

A study/survey on bacterial contamination was conducted at CDCS (Crop Diversification Centre, Brooks, Alberta, Canada). The leaves were collected in aquaponics and compared to the green vegetables purchased in grocery stores. This confirmed previous two-year food safety studies, which showed no presence of E.coli or other pathogens in aquaponics produce. It is not a surprising result as the plants are grown in a confined area with no contact with animal manure, which is a main source of E. coli contamination in field-grown produce. Thus, aquaponics is not just more efficient and environmentally friendly than other technologies, but it is also a safer way to produce vegetables.

2) Ironically, at the same time as this outbreak was garnering international attention, Friendly Aquaponics found that their Food Safety Certification could not be renewed. (The following is reprinted, with permission, from the Friendly Aquaponics Newsletter #39, June 2, 2011)

We are no longer selling our lettuce mix in Costco. This is a sad thing for us, because we love all the Costco employees we’ve dealt with over the years, and they loved our lettuce. They even told us that they had people waiting on the floor for the delivery when it was rolled out of the cold storage, just like people waiting for movie tickets for a premiere.

Why did this happen? Costco requires Food Safety Certification for its vendors. We satisfied requirements and initially got Food Safety Certified through the State of Hawaii, who had been trained to give Food Safety Audits by a national food-safety certification company. As best we can tell, how they apply the Food Safety standards was reinterpreted sometime in the last year or so and aquaponically-grown produce is no longer able to qualify for certification.

This is because of two things inherent to aquaponics that can’t be changed to meet the Food Safety standards (at least, can’t be changed and have it still be aquaponics!). The rules for the Food Safety audit say that “The presence of animals in the growing area is an automatic (complete) failure of the food safety audit”, and “The presence of untreated manure in the growing area is also an automatic failure of the food safety audit

I had a chance to talk with Susanne Friend yesterday and get a few more details. Ends up that the State of Hawaii, which originally certified Friendly Aquaponics, is considered a third-party auditor, and Costco’s acceptance of their food safety certification was unusual – they normally require documentation from a private agency which is considered the ‘primary auditor’. Someone in Costco’s offices noticed this discrepancy when their Food Safety Certification came up for renewal and sent a private agency auditor over to Friendly, who subsequently denied the renewal of their certification based on the ‘template’, i.e. the specific set of rules he was using.

The State of Hawaii is very friendly towards aquaponics (no pun intended) because there is so much aquaponic activity there. The State is even pursuing a $48 million grant around alternative forms of agriculture. The private agency has no such incentive. They have their rules, and their inspectors are just following those rules. They aren’t paid to ask questions like is a fish an ‘animal’ as the definition intended, especially since fish can’t exactly walk over to where the lettuce is growing to cause direct contamination. And then there is the obvious question – Should all manure be considered the same, or should the certification rules recognize that the manure of cold-blooded animals can’t and doesn’t carry the threatening diseases often found in warm-blooded animal manure?

These questions are just a pain in the side of an auditor, but they have huge implications for a young aquaponics industry. This leads me to the third event.

3) An Aquaponics Association is being proposed. It’s mandate? To promote the benefits of aquaponics and to dispel rumors and myths about growing aquaponically. To help answer challenges like the one the Friendly’s are currently answering on their own. To run conferences like the one scheduled for Orlando, FL that we are co-producing with Green Acre Organics this year (website link coming soon). To create educational materials, run an aquaponics speakers bureau, and to be a resource to the press. Perhaps eventually even to offer legal assistance, insurance assistance, and certification.

A discussion on the formation of this organization is scheduled for the last day of the Orlando Aquaponics Conference, September 18, 2011. We hope to get a great crowd of passionate, invested aquapons there to see it happen!