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Specialty crops, water quality monitoring technology, and USDA grants

Anytime a food safety concern becomes nationally significant, like a large recall of a product due to E. Coli or Salmonella contamination, the efforts and programs in place to ensure the safety of our food supply come under increased scrutiny. Usually, these programs operate quietly in the background, unnoticed, until a significant failure occurs and people become ill. When this happens, a renewed interest is placed in those systems and policies designed to keep our food systems safe.

Two federal agencies have a role in ensuring the safety of the food products we consume; the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Generally, the USDA administers meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs, while the FDA regulates other crops and food products. However, there is some crossover between these agencies regarding food safety programs. These agencies also oversee funding incentives and instruments to ensure food supply chains in the U.S. are safe and robust. These instruments can be low-interest loans, disaster insurance, farm subsidies, and grants for various purposes aimed at growers and producers.

The USDA operates a grant program called the Food Safety Certification for Specialty Crop Program that can provide growers with financial assistance for food safety-related expenses. This program helps to offset the costs incurred to meet food safety criteria set by the FDA and independent consumer advocacy groups and trade organizations. A percentage of the fee required by a grower to obtain or renew food safety certifications and some operating expenses can be covered through this program. Eligible expenditures include developing food safety production plans, safety certifications, microbiological testing, and employee training. The grant program can cover up to 75% of these expenses.

Recently Merchant’s Garden, an indoor vertical farm in Tucson, Arizona, was able to obtain funding through this program to offset the cost of obtaining its food safety certification and installing and maintaining equipment required to grow crops safely and effectively. Part of this funding was used to install KETOS SHIELDs, which can be a vital part of monitoring the quality of water used in vertical farming operations. By continuously tracking specific water parameters, a safer product can be delivered to consumers, particularly in the case of leafy greens. Recent high-profile outbreaks of E. Coli linked to leafy greens were determined to be caused by the presence of the pathogen in irrigation water used on the fields and possibly in the air. The safety of food supplies can become more robust through technological solutions and funding measures like those offered by the USDA. 

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