According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, contamination in the food supply chain can happen at any point.
But the biggest culprit is often where everything begins: the humble seed.
When looking at the statistics, it is easy to see why mitigation is a high priority in this industry. During 1996 and 2020, there were 2,700 confirmed cases of people who fell ill after consuming food linked to contaminated seeds and sprouts. Based on a multiplier equation developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the real number of victims was potentially thousands more.
When it comes to growing food with less contamination, such as better control over exposure to pesticides or soil contamination, many people think of greenhouses or vertical farming. But as the statement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration shows, no growing medium is safe if the seeds themselves are the cause of microbial contamination. This article will take a closer look at indoor farming methods, the challenges they face with contamination, and why technology solutions should be at the forefront of mitigating these problems.
A Good Start to Safer Food: Clean Rooms and Clean Seeds
In countries with many people to feed, such as China or India, many farmers are turning to methods that reliably churn out more produce. More specifically, they are utilizing indoor greenhouses and vertical farming.
This “clean-room” approach is not only popular for bigger yields but also because it can reduce contamination. Since most of the work is done by robots and not humans, the chances of microbial cross-contamination and subsequent infection are reduced.
However, in order to succeed, these farmers need to get their hands on healthy, clean seeds, which is not always easy. The number of ways in which both viral and microbial infections can transfer between the parts of the seed, or how seeds can become contaminated via the stigma, floral parts, or even the fruit, can probably fill a book.
This is rather concerning not only because contaminated crops have smaller yields, but also because they can lead to health problems in the consumer market. Some traditional methods of seed decontamination, such as hot water and bleach, will disinfect the seed but lead to failure to germinate, resulting in lower crop yields. But how big of a deal are contaminated seeds in a controlled environment? Let’s take a closer look at the sprouts example.
Factors That Contribute to a Potential Public Health Risk
To fully understand why people can fall ill from consuming sprouts, it is important to look at several issues within these clean-room environments.
For starters, sprouts are popular with shoppers, but it is not common knowledge among consumers that these seedlings have a dubious history when it comes to food safety. For decades, these tiny greens have been recognized as a source of food poisoning outbreaks; regrettably, such events are not rare. For instance, from 1995 to 2011, there was at least one outbreak every year in the United States.
Another factor that might contribute to the problem is the growing environment itself. Most sprouts are cultivated in conditions that are warm and humid. Any muggy place, even a clean indoor greenhouse, can potentially offer the perfect breeding ground for bacteria like Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella, and E. coli to proliferate from contaminated seeds or cross-contamination.
But what about greens that are grown hydroponically? In this case, sprouts are grown in clear water from seeds that have been gathered in a field. If any of those seeds are contaminated, they can eventually infect neighboring plants via their shared water base. Once again, this highlights the importance of clean seeds in all types of growing environments.
The manner in which sprouts are consumed also heightens the chance of consumers falling ill. Since they are leafy, washing does not always remove all impurities. Fully cooking the sprouts is a good way to guarantee safe consumption, but sprouts remain popular as a raw addition to salads and sandwiches.
How Advanced Technology and New Mitigation Methods Can Help
Advanced technology, specifically plasma sterilization technology, can significantly aid indoor farming by mitigating seed contamination. It empowers farmers with greater control over crop yield and health, particularly in clean-room environments, allowing precise regulation of essential factors such as temperature, light, fertilizer, and water.
This technological partnership offers a valuable defense against the disheartening statistics discussed earlier. Novel technology solutions focusing on seed decontamination already exist. Sterilization methods like airilization can be applied at any stage of food production, ensuring superior sanitation and food safety for livestock and human consumers. By utilizing electrified air, pathogens and harmful particles can be effectively eliminated, while fungi and mold can also be controlled. These innovative sterilization techniques can be implemented from the seed stage to far down the supply chain, minimizing waste and contamination.
This example illustrates how technology can enhance indoor farming practices by addressing viral or bacterial issues through cutting-edge seed treatment. By limiting seed contamination through advanced technology, indoor farming can overcome challenges and achieve improved productivity and food safety throughout the production process.
A Serious Matter, Certainly, But There Can Be a Bright Future
Seed contamination remains one of the biggest fears that the food industry might never get rid of — and that is a good thing. The industry can’t afford to drop its guard around food safety.
However, this does not mean that farmers and other key players in the food industry must feel powerless or overwhelmed. New agricultural technology solutions are appearing every day, and options that are specifically geared toward seed cleansing can greatly reduce contamination problems from the start.