Federal law lays it all out: If the edible portion of a crop directly touched floodwater, it’s “adulterated” and should not enter human food channels.
The reason is that nobody knows for sure exactly what is in floodwater; as various creeks spill over their banks they pass through parking lots and streets covered with oil, feed lots, water treatment plants and dozens of other sources of potential contamination.
“Adulterated crops” might ring a bell for Colorado newsreaders, as the proprietors of Rocky Ford’s Jensen Farms were charged with six counts each of introducing adulterated food to the food supply after selling cantaloupes allegedly contaminated with listeria.
Could Boulder County farmers face the same charges in the aftermath of the floods?
If they were selling adulterated food, theoretically they could. But ask around the Boulder County Farmers’ Markets, a significant source of income for farmers who participate, and it’s evident that farmers are taking the contamination issue seriously. In all cases Boulder Weekly inquired about, farmers said they are not selling adulterated crops, saying they’ve disposed of any crops that came into contact with floodwater.
The government — federal, state and local — leaves the process of evaluating crops and deciding to sell or discard them to the farmers themselves. In an interview for a Sept. 19 Boulder Weekly story, the deputy commissioner for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, Ron Carleton, said producers would make the assessment of their own crops.
But government agencies are helping inform farmers; at the Sept. 25 farmers’ market in Boulder, a representative of the county was handing out stapled sheets to farmers explaining the FDA’s recommendations about crops in floodwater or near flooded areas.
The farmers’ market itself will also leave it up the farmers to decide whether their crops are safe for their customers, according to farmers’ market forensic market specialist and manager Brad Burger. “I think that every single farm has lost some product due to the floods, but not every single farm was flooded,” Burger says. “For us to put a stop to all would be a disservice to the farmer.”
Mary Rochelle of Fresh Ideas Group, a spokesperson for the farmers’ market, says, “More than 90 percent of farmers at the farmers’ market were not affected by the floodwaters.”
Rochelle says only two or three farms have had to pull out of the market entirely, and two of those only sold flowers. Burger adds that the market provides a unique platform for communication between the grower and the customer, ensuring safety.
“Customers have the opportunity to speak directly to the farmer,” Burger says. “You can’t get that at Lucky’s, Safeway or Whole Foods. … In a situation like this, you have the source right in front of you.”
Consumers at the Sept. 28 market — which saw average to above-average crowds — expressed some concern for food safety, but said it didn’t worry them too much.
“No, we’re not worried,” one woman said. "We wash our stuff."
Another shopper said the face-to-face interaction with farmers reassured him.
"We´re not worried. We´ve been coming to the same vendors for a long time," the man said. "He did say he lost some things."
Another shopper, while saying crop contamination was a "legit issue," said he had confidence that farmers weren´t selling contaminated food.
Produce that was not in direct contact with floodwater can be washed and eaten. The FDA and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recommend washing food with a chlorine bleach solution of two tablespoons of bleach per gallon of water.
When told about the bleach solution, one shopper said, “Yeah, I’m not doing that.”
In response to news articles warning farmers and customers of the risks of flood-damaged food, Burger says that the information misleads farmers’ market patrons to believe that all of the crops are dangerous.
“[The information] is probably true, but extremely misleading, because not every single grower has been flooded,” Burger says. “We have lost three farmers, but there are 60 other farmers and not all of them have been impacted to those extremes. That being said, they are taking all of the proper precautions.”
Several farmers say they discarded the parts of their harvest that they suspected had been exposed directly to floodwater. One of those was Aaron Dew, a farmer at Longmont’s Dew Farms, who said his farm was hit hard by heavy rains. Alongside his father Spencer on Sept. 28, Aaron Dew described the damage to the farm’s crops and praised the community for its support.
Dew Farms’ main field didn’t get flooded, Dew says, since it was protected by raised roads. But Dew did lose a portion of crop that was growing elsewhere.
“We destroyed it,” Dew says immediately when asked about flooded crops. “I would rather destroy it. For the betterment of the community, we got rid of it.”
Laid out on the table in front of him are tomatoes from the main field, which he says were in pooled water but not floodwater. Pooled water — a situation where the water level rose but didn’t come rushing in from somewhere else, carrying contaminants — does not carry the same risks as floodwater.
While Dew and his father kept an eye on their fields to make sure flooding hadn’t occurred, they also employed a common-sense safeguard, he says.
“Anything I sell, I eat,” Dew says.
Dew says members of the Dew Farms community-supported agriculture (CSA) program have been understanding about reduced shares after the flood. “We’ve been blessed by support from the community,” he says. “People in the CSA, they totally understand. … People are very supportive.”
And, like the shoppers, he expresses confidence that farmers are holding themselves to high standards.
“The farmers who sell at the Boulder market, they’re perfectionists,” he says.
Other farmers promptly back up Dew’s assumption.
Asked if any of the produce from Longmont’s Rocky Mountain Pumpkin Ranch directly touched floodwater, a farmer behind the table has a simple answer.
“No way,” he says. “Thirteen thousand gallons of oil in that water.”
Adrian Card, agriculture and natural resources agent for the CSU Extension for Boulder County, says he has confidence in local farmers and their crops.
“I’ve driven through most of the county and agricultural land,” Card says. “I can say that floodwaters impacted about 10 percent of the actual acres.”
Card adds, “From a human health perspective, the risks are being managed and people should have confidence in their local farmers.
“Ask immediately: ‘Did the edible portion of the produce come in contact with the floodwater?’ … The answer should be a standardized ‘No.’”
If farmers’ crops are still bearing fruit, produce grown after the waters subside should be safe to consume, according to a fact sheet from the University of Minnesota. As the season ends, tilling of soil should help remove contamination from the soil, the fact sheets say, although they recommend chemical and biological testing of soil samples to be sure. They also suggest waiting 60 days between flooding and planting the next crop.
As for the farmers’ markets, they are running in Boulder and Longmont just as scheduled: Wednesdays in Boulder finished up Oct. 2; Saturdays in Boulder run through Nov. 16; Saturdays in Longmont run through Nov. 2.