How Hydroponics & Vertical Farming Can Improve Food Safety and Protect our Food Supply

Our greenhouse team member utilizing food safety best practices at our R&D facility.

The United States Department of Agriculture sometimes refers to vertical farming as “controlled-environment agriculture” and there’s a good reason for this moniker. 

Viraj Puri, co-founder and CEO of a hydroponic vertical farm, told Food Safety News that the hydroponic vegetable industry has a built-in food safety advantage over open-field farming. He believes that this advantage comes from its “physical infrastructure and higher levels of environmental controls.”

In recent years, the safety of our food supply has been called into question. Numerous food recalls are a regular part of news broadcasts across the country. Recently, it was found that fruit and vegetables failed import safety checks at a rate of 12.5%. At the same time, other categories such as meat, fish, and eggs, achieved compliance rates over 95%.

National producers of fruit and vegetables have also had problems. Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A are reporting lettuce shortages, eliminating menu items like salads, due to extreme warm weather and a bug-borne virus in Salinas in October 2020. We also saw an outbreak related to contaminated romaine lettuce originated in California in 2019. This year’s recalls of onions and peaches also originated domestically. 

Vertical farms using hydroponic technologies could usher in a revolution in food safety. Hydroponic growing has a plethora of food safety benefits. Year after year, pathogens are found in traditionally-grown (or soil-grown) crops. This is because the soil itself contains naturally-occurring pathogens, and traditional farms are open to contamination from outside sources such as animal droppings and tainted run-off. Hydroponic farming has the potential to drastically reduce the number of people who get sick via foodborne illness every year by eliminating these pathogens from the growing process. 

Foodborne illnesses have originated from traditionally grown crops over and over, and the problem is growing. It’s important to understand the dangers of these foodborne illnesses, as well as what “food safety” is and how every individual along the food supply chain has a role to play. Fortunately, recent food safety news gives us hope that hydroponics can improve food safety. 

Why We Need A Culture of Food Safety: The Dangers of Foodborne Illnesses               

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million people get sick (1 in 6), 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne illnesses each year in the U.S. Food can be contaminated by many different disease-causing germs. There are many different types of foodborne illnesses (sometimes described as food poisoning or foodborne disease). Over 250 types of foodborne illnesses have so far been identified. The majority are infections caused by bacteria, parasites, and viruses. Food can also be contaminated with harmful toxins and chemicals. 

Food may become contaminated during any stage of the food supply chain; from production, distribution, processing, preparation, to storage. Germs can spread to food from unclean utensils, surfaces, or equipment. And it’s not uncommon for these contaminated foods to make it to market and into kitchens and restaurants before anyone knows there is a problem.

What is Food Safety? 

“Food safety” describes all operations and practices that are utilized to keep food safe. Keeping food safe is a joint effort involving everyone in the food supply chain. All along the food supply chain—from producers and farmers to wholesalers and retailers— there are standardized regulations and controls in place to reduce the risk of food contamination. 

Part of food safety practices involves growing, handling, preparing, packaging, and storing food in a way that best reduces the risk of people getting ill from foodborne diseases. Food safety is a concern all over the world and one that we should take great care to address.

The fundamental principles of food safety focus on preventing food from becoming contaminated and causing food poisoning. This is achieved through several different methods, some of which include:

  • Understanding food allergies, food intolerance, and food poisoning

  • Keeping up high standards of personal hygiene (i.e hand-washing) when handling food at any step in the food supply chain

  • Storing, heating and cooling food properly with regard to temperature, environment, and equipment

  • Using effective and adequate pest control measures

  • Cleaning and sanitizing all surfaces, utensils, and equipment

How Hydroponics Can Improve Food Safety

Unlike in traditional farming, wildlife and livestock can’t contaminate produce grown in a vertical farm’s greenhouses. It’s almost impossible to prevent such contamination in traditional agriculture where wide open fields are susceptible to bird droppings and animal encroachment. 

Although there aren’t industry-wide food safety standards for hydroponic growers, the vast majority of companies have rigorous processes in place. Joel Cuello, Vice Chair at the Association for Vertical Farming, said “vertical farms are, in fact, generally and significantly safer than conventional agriculture”. He believes that the reason many vertical farms don’t have internationally recognized food safety certifications is because their stellar food safety reputation is proof enough.

Since vertical farms use a hydroponic system for watering, there’s very little chance that contamination from water will infect the produce. Hydroponic systems add nutrients to tested or purified water and then apply that water directly to the plants’ roots. The system completely bypasses the use of soil, which is a possible contaminant with a lengthy history of getting people very sick. Hydroponic technology also avoids the problem of runoff from nearby sources of toxic chemicals or biological waste.

Food Safety News: Soil and E. coli  

In recent food safety news, the major E. coli outbreak that started in September of 2019 and related to romaine lettuce seems to be over. Epidemiologic, laboratory, and traceback evidence conclusively showed where the contaminated romaine lettuce came from. The produce that made people sick in September of last year is no longer available for sale. However, it was grown in soil and harvested in the Salinas Valley growing region. 

A total of 167 individuals from across 27 states were infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7. Eighty-five people were hospitalized due to this outbreak, including 15 who developed hemolytic uremic syndrome—a kind of kidney failure. Luckily, no deaths were reported.

Some think E. coli results in little more than an upset stomach, but outbreaks can be very serious affairs and in some cases have caused death. At best, it causes vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps; let alone an long-term aversion to lettuce after getting sick. 

Hydroponic Greenhouses Are Safer Than Soil-Based Farming 

The Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, and public health officials investigated the most recent E. coli outbreak in the United States. Their recommendation said that hydroponic-grown lettuce was not related to the current outbreak. In their words, “there is no recommendation for consumers to avoid using romaine harvested from these other sources.”

Hydroponic Growing Offers Many Food Safety Benefits 

  • Hydroponic growing does not require high levels of pesticides and uses less water, land, and fertilizers than conventional farming.

  • Vertical farms also use a soilless medium for growing their plants. This means that food products are not infected by pathogens that can sometimes contaminate soil and be passed to traditionally grown crops.

  • Greenhouse vertical farms are highly controlled environments in which the light intensity, temperature, and humidity are closely monitored and controlled and the growing solution is strictly regulated. With so many levels of checks and controls, it is far less likely that pathogens and toxins could be introduced into these closed environments.

Eden Green Technology offers hydroponic systems that can help create a healthier food supply. Learn more about how to safely grow delicious produce.


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