Is CEA being oversold?

Four basic claims are being made about CEA products that are driving the success in niche markets, writes Eric Wilhelmsenin the FoodSafety magazine. CEA products are touted as:

  • Inherently safer
  • Fresher
  • More nutritious
  • Environmentally greener.

These claims bear examination as they are oversimplifications of complex factors. 

It is argued that the closed environment makes CEA products inherently safer than those of traditional farm operations. The recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) report regarding a CEA outbreak of Salmonella belies this assertion. All forms of agriculture must adhere to Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs). No fresh produce operation is without hazards. The hazards may be different due to the mostly closed growing environment, but the closed environment is not enough to ensure safety. Every system has inherent hazards that must be managed.

The CEA environment should be very effective at excluding large animals from directly affecting the product. However, the controlled environments can never be completely closed. Air, water, and people need to interact with the crops in CEA operations. These inputs can be vectors for potential contamination and must be controlled. The seeds used are not sterile. Insects can be a problem. The high-care area used for packaging product has all the sanitization and hygiene requirements of the normal high-care area of a fresh-cut produce operation. This includes a robust environmental monitoring program. As CEA matures, it is reasonable to expect that tailored GAPs and GMPs will evolve. In the interim, practitioners of CEA would be well advised to consider those aspects of traditional GAPs and GMPs that apply to their specific situations. It is easier to build in safety than it is to fix safety problems.

The data is still evolving regarding the need to wash CEA products before consumption. CEA products are generally handled to avoid the dirt and soil that are common on regular produce and force wash procedures in most fresh-cut operations. However, this does not inherently make CEA products sanitary. The recent Salmonella outbreak highlights the need for concern and careful attention. Pathogen transfer to product through soil, water, or another medium in CEA operations is an issue that merits research and study. 

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