Aquaponics & Food Safety: A Conversation with Dr. Sarah Taber

The first thing one will notice about Dr. Sarah Taber is she’s a fast talker – a very fast talker. I attribute this trait to the simple fact that her brain works much faster than her mouth can get the words out. Brilliance can be tough sometimes. I met Sarah in 2015 at Indoor Ag Con in Las Vegas where she was speaking on the subject of food safety in aquaponics, when employed as the primary growing methodology. We later found common ground working together in surveying the nascent indoor vertical farm industry to inquire if a trade association could help operators with zoning, permitting and other municipal challenges faced with when establishing a commercial, indoor operation. Sarah has taught me far more than I can say and I’m indebted to her time and talents…so much so that I wanted to write this blog to share what she’s been up to lately as well as impart some Taber-knowledge to Urban Ag News readers.

Dr. Sarah Taber - Aquaponics Association
Dr. Sarah Taber

Since 2013, she has been the Director of Food Safety for the 501c3 Aquaponics Association (http://aquaponicsassociation.org/) along with performing auditing duties for Brazil-based WQS (http://www.worldqualitysystems.com/). The latter is her main gig and takes her to farms and grow operations throughout the southeastern United States. Sarah holds a Doctorate in Plant Medicine from the University of Florida. She did her post-doc work in plant breeding with previous research projects using silicon as a sustainable fungicide and gravitated to controlled environment agriculture. Working for a certifying body like WQS, Sarah has the opportunity to educate, train and ensure growers are adhering to more-than-a-modicum of quality control and safety standards. “Auditors are like a referee where consultants are like a coach.” Coaches want you to score, sometimes at all costs, whereas the ref wants you to play by the rules.

Sarah points out that at the present time the United States government really isn’t involved in the inspection process for produce. “It’s a common misconception,” she tells me. Produce is regulated by the FDA—not USDA—but until FSMA (the Food Safety & Modernization Act) goes into effect, there are still no federal requirements or guidelines for growing clean produce. Even when FSMA goes into effect, its regulations will be “entry-level” compared to what is already required by commercial audits.

aquaponics-association

In an environment where there’s a large gap between what the law requires and what customers want, it’s left to the marketplace to set the rules. Retailers like grocery stores, institutional buyers, and restaurants set their standards; commercial certifiers like WQS offer inspections to show that farms meet those standards.

This makes sense when one considers the financial fall-out that can occur when food safety goes horribly wrong (think Chipotle).

She explains that every audit is different but in its most simple form, an audit consists of a field tour, lots of questions about employee training, equipment testing and use, policies and record keeping. The end result is the generation of a formal report given to the grower which details the corrective actions required. Generally, the grower has a month to address and amend any infractions. When I asked Sarah if the growers moan when they see her coming, she states that more than anything, they just want to do the right thing as their livelihood and long-term operational viability depend on setting a high standard for their operation.

I too have depended on Dr. Sarah Taber’s expertise and guidance, and I’m better and smarter for it. She may speak fast but she is definitely worth listening to.