Editor’s note: Each Spring, attorneys Bill Marler and Denis Stearns teach a Food Safety Litigation course in the LL.M. Program in Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law. This specialized program for attorneys brings together those who are interested in our food system, from farm to table. As a final assignment, students are asked to write an op-ed or essay on food safety, with the best to be selected for publication in Food Safety Website. The following is one of the essays for 2020.

By Brian Bonner

Does time at home during the coronavirus (COVID-19) quarantine have you contemplating starting a backyard compost pile for your new victory garden? Has passing the time watching vintage episodes from the PBS series The Victory Garden motivated you to try out composting? If so, remember 160° for your backyard compost pile (see here, and here) and your backyard burgers. 

Before taking the backyard composting plunge, put on your face mask and head to your favorite local garden center (if open and safe), or online, and buy a compost thermometer – yes, compost thermometers are a thing. And, if you do not already own one for your backyard grilling, buy a meat thermometer while shopping – yes, meat thermometers are also a thing.

Next, educate yourself on composting’s benefits and risks. Composting can be a beneficial and sustainable past time for backyard gardeners. You are benefiting the Earth with less waste while creating new soil for your garden. Your local public library, and the internet, contain numerous resources to get you started. But maybe the best starting place is your state extension service. State extension agents are experts on getting you started in composting. And extension agents will set you straight on all the local rules, requirements, and best practices. Here is a state extension service locater that I found helpful. Exploring the free information from other states is also worthwhile. If you are up for some fun, formal, academic training, most state extension services also teach an online master gardener program allowing resident and non-resident enrollment. To improve my composting and gardening skills, I am considering the Clemson Cooperative Extension Online Master Gardener Program as a summer quarantine project. Not yet certain you are up for a formal master gardener program? You may enjoy the free Oregon State University Online Intro to Master Gardener Program for informative videos and lessons.            

After you gleefully read the seemingly endless food scrap and everyday item listings that you can, and cannot, compost, please, and I implore please, fully understand and undertake all recommended safety precautions. Composting, while appearing simple, requires proper care and attention.

For instance, I was shocked learning from the earlier blog post What’s in Your Compost? on Food Safety Website that foodborne illness pathogens could be lurking in my backyard compost. Since my nature is inquisitive and questioning, I sought additional verification and information. 

My initial shock found quick confirmation. Both academic resources – Ohio State University Extension, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, and Washington State University Extension – as well as a back-to-the-land resource – Backwoods Home Magazine – confirmed. The most dangerous foodborne illness pathogens could indeed be lurking in my backyard compost pile and garden: E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, and Listeria monocytogenes.  I was additionally shocked learning that the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors warns home inspectors on Compost Pile Hazards and possible illness from compost piles: Aspergillosis, Farmer’s lung (pneumonitis), Histoplasmosis, Legionella (Legionnaires disease), Paronychia, and Tetanus. 

Alarmed? Concerned? We all should be.

And complicating and compounding matters, I also learned our feathered and furry friends may leave unwanted additions and adulterants in compost piles and gardens. In Feral in the Fields: Food Safety Risks from Wildlife, another earlier blog post on Food Safety Website, Dr. Michele Jay-Russell at the UC Davis Western Institute for Food Safety & Security, warns that wildlife, particularly deer and feral pigs, are E. coli O157:H7 sources. Per Dr. Jay-Russell, “even a small level of contamination in the field may represent a serious human health risk.” Beyond E. coli O157:H7 from deer and feral pigs, Dr. Jay-Russell further warns in the same blog post that “Salmonella and Campylobacter carriage is more common, especially among wild bird populations including species that live commensally with humans (e.g., gulls, pigeons).”  And so, purchasing that salt lick from the local farm store so the kids can watch the deer in your backyard is not the best idea. Likewise, your backyard bird feeder may be a simulated AFO or CAFO (depending on your birding prowess and budget). And you just planned your compost pile and garden next to, or under it!

If you think commercially prepared, store bought compost for your garden must be the savior – think again. I recommend reading What’s in Commercial Compost from Planet Natural Research Center (a valuable sustainable gardening internet resource), and another earlier blog post Researchers Find Pathogens in Compost on Food Safety Website. Simply put, I was not pleased learning E. coli O157:H7, herbicides, pesticides, heavy metals, and other pathogens and chemicals can lurk in store-bought compost – even “organic” compost. If you must purchase compost, a resource I found helpful, and consumer empowering, is the Organic Materials Review Institute listings for compost – and other products. OMRI provides independent research for products allowed for certified organic farms and operations. Even though my backyard garden is not certified organic, I value all consumer and safety information available. Although not fool-proof, the OMRI information is helpful for consumers looking for organic products, and hopefully provides additional safety incentives for compost manufacturers, and other product manufacturers, seeking OMRI listing. After all, who likes purchasing and adding E. coli O157:H7, herbicides, pesticides, heavy metals, and other pathogens and chemicals to the backyard garden?!  

Want yet another backyard garden shocker? The rain barrel you built for your daughter’s school environmental project is also a risk according to sources ranging from the CDC, the EPA, the University of Connecticut Extension, the University of Illinois Extension, the North Carolina State Cooperative Extension System, to Grist. Per these sources, the untreated water from your rain barrel can contain E. coli and Salmonella, as well as heavy metal risks such as lead, zinc, and copper. Additional risks include Hepatitis A, Giardia, Shigella (Shigellosis), Cryptosporidium, Toxoplasma (Toxoplasmosis), and Norovirus.

Now, my point is not to scare you into inaction. My point is to scare you into action! 

Before giving up your new hobby and thinking all is lost, educate yourself on composting and gardening before starting. Tap the resources and expert agents at your state extension service. Take time learning and maintaining the best and safest practices. Even if you are not new to the composting and gardening game, be willing and able to learn new and safer practices.

Despite my research, I am still composting and gardening. I am continuing my backyard agrobiodiversity efforts. The bird feeders are staying up. The birding binoculars are staying out on the table. We will be continuing our traditional family participation in The Great Backyard Bird Count.  

But we are changing how things operate in our little backyard oasis. 

Here are the more material changes:

  • Over family eye-rolling, the food safety in the backyard compost and garden lectures will continue. In fact, the blog posts Food Safety Tips for Your Home Garden and Plant Food Safety in School and Other Youth Gardens; Don’t Miss Those Important Teaching Moments on Food Safety Website, and UC Davis’ Food Safety Tips for Your Edible Home Garden were required family reading before planting this year. These persuasive sources also allowed rebuffing family quips that I should dress up as Chicken Little for Halloween this year. And so, I am quite sure the family is anxiously awaiting any new information I may acquire from a master gardener online course. That said, feel free sending me any enlightening ideas on making food safety in the garden fun, and not too scary, for aspiring young adult, and young at heart, gardeners.
  • The backyard composting is transitioning fully vegan.
  • Our open compost bins are being replaced with an enclosed, raised, rotating barrel composting system so unwanted wildlife additions and adulterants can be kept at bay.
  • Just like verifying – using our trusty meat thermometer – our backyard burgers cook to 160° per the CDC recommended temperature for consumers to kill foodborne pathogens in ground beef, we will verify – using our trusty compost thermometer – our compost’s internal temperature reaches 160° per composting heat and time recommendations (see here, and here) to kill foodborne pathogens in compost.
  • Our rain barrel is retired. Any irrigation needed beyond naturally occurring rain will be potable water from the house. To conserve water usage, we heavily mulched all gardens and flower beds. Maintaining and replenishing this thick, organic mulch is now the priority over harvesting rainwater.
  • Our bird feeders distantly relocated, but still visible through binoculars, from the vegetable gardens and compost barrel area.
  • Additional vegetable garden enclosures are planned limiting wildlife access.

Yes, these changes will cause deviations from our prior gardening norms and patterns. Yes, these changes will cost money. But therein lies safe composting’s and gardening’s beauty, and food safety’s beauty. Risks can be reduced by coupling proper and necessary precautions, together with investments in training, education, and safer processes and equipment. Shortcuts, incomprehension, inattention, stubbornness, and risky cost savings – passing on the compost and meat thermometers – can cause tragic outcomes. Because food and water are essential for life, as with demanding and expecting safe and unadulterated food, beverages, and related ingredients and products from commercial manufacturers, the bounty grown and produced from backyard gardening efforts should also be kept safe and adulterant free.  

Please keep yourself, and your family and friends, safe with your composting hobby for your new victory garden. Follow the experts’ recommended safety precautions, as in remembering 160° for your compost pile just like your burgers. And, naturally, buy and use separate thermometers for your burgers and your compost! Be green, but also be smart and safe. 

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