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Food Safety After Flooding

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO (HOST): No one knows exactly what was in the floodwaters in Texas that came after Hurricane Harvey. That's raised some questions about food safety after a flood. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on the confusion about what to do with crops and farm fields that sat underwater for days.

HANSI LO WANG (BYLINE): Alan Gaulding is always trying to keep his rice fields wet, but he says nothing like when Harvey hit.

ALAN GAULDING (FARMER): So it kind of was like a big bowl just full of water.

WANG: Could you drive on this road before?

GAULDING: No. We couldn't even cross the bayou to get here to check on the farm.

WANG: After the storm came through Hamshire, Texas, about an hour east of Houston, flooding kept him from working the field for almost two weeks. And Gaulding still had a quarter of his rice crop left in the flooded fields, waiting to be harvested.

GAULDING: It's like an apple. When it gets too ripe, it falls off the tree - same thing.

So we got grain falling off the plant. So we were in a time crunch to get to it.

WANG: But Gaulding had to wait about three weeks after the storm to find out if his crop would be safe to sell. According to guidance from the Food and Drug Administration, any edible part of a crop exposed to floodwater is not safe for humans to eat because of the risk of bacteria, chemicals, heavy metals and mold. So Gaulding was worried.

GAULDING: I'm not growing this food to hurt anybody. I mean, this is thousands of dollars, maybe even $100,000 that I'm going to lose in this field. But it's not worth killing somebody.

WANG: Gaulding tried to get the state chemist in Texas to test the rice for a possible contamination, but he says it wasn't easy. In a written statement, the state chemist, Tim Herrman, says his office responded to concern about flooded crops, quote, "accordingly." But he also confirmed that some of the potential flood contaminants listed by the FDA had not been programmed into his office's computer system before Gaulding's rice was tested. The testing eventually came back negative. No contamination.

TED ELKIN (FDA): Early on, in any of these events, there's a lot of confusion rumoring about what's actually occurred and what's happening.

WANG: Ted Elkin is the deputy director for regulatory affairs at the food safety center of the FDA. The agency released a statement in September clarifying that the FDA's guidance did not ban rice or other crops from Texas after Harvey.

ELKIN: It really is a general guidance. But we're always trying to make things specific and really on a case-by-case basis.

WANG: For rice in Texas that touched floodwater after Harvey, Elkin says that means figuring out if the rice sat in pooled rainwater or if floodwater from elsewhere seeped onto the field. Still, the historic levels of rain that fell on Texas are forcing some state officials to rethink how flooding can affect food safety, according to Boone Holladay of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

BOONE HOLLADAY (TEXAS A&M AGRILIFE EXTENSION SERVICE): We had water going into places that water has never been before. And so it's kind of rewriting the books for us right now. We're going to have to remap what are going to become areas that are maybe not going to be suitable for specialty crops.

WANG: As for consumers, Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, says it can be difficult to determine whether the produce at a store have touched floodwater.

BEN CHAPMAN (NORTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY): We're at the mercy of the industry in the regulatory world. And the industry every day is producing food for us.

WANG: It's a responsibility that rice farmer Alan Gaulding says he takes pride in. But he says he's worried about the uncertainty that may come with future floods.

GAULDING: There will be a next time. And before we put the farmers through two or three weeks of waiting, we need to think about this thing and say, what happens if it goes underwater? Is it safe? Is it not?

WANG: Gaulding says he wants to see clearer guidance and a quicker response from the government. What's unclear, more than two months after Harvey hit Texas, is what contaminants may be left in the soil from the flood. So far, neither the Texas Department of Agriculture nor the state health department has tested any farm fields. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Hamshire, Texas.

Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.