Photo acquired from Deposit Photos, Photo ID #47064127.
By: Billy Mitchell
Sometimes, two great things go together incredibly well. Like Dolly Parton and roller coasters, puffins and rocky shorelines, or Wall Drug and homemade doughnuts. Personally, I find the duo of Good Agricultural Practices and Nicolas Cage movies to be a perfect fit. When Nicolas Cage goes on his silver screen adventures, he’s often – maybe inadvertently – teaching valuable lessons about Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), with a focus on risk assessments, along the way.
For those that don’t know, Nicolas Cage—according to some film aficionados— is one of the most versatile and brilliant movie actors of all time. He can act in cars, planes, boats, and ships. He can be mad. He can be sad. He can be John Travolta if you want him to be. Many have noted the 59-year old veteran is entering somewhat of a renaissance for upcoming projects ranging from high-brow, independent, to the downright absurd.
If you’re new to the concept of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), they are the steps that producers take to minimize food safety risks while growing, packing, handling, storing, and selling their produce. They most often happen in the field, packhouse, storage, and during transportation. They can involve water. They can include soil. They are a significant component of the Produce Safety Alliance Grower Training and the Food Safety Modernization Act’s Produce Safety Rule. In the following few paragraphs, let’s revisit a few classic Cage films and highlight what they can teach us about GAPs and risk assessments.
Face Off, handwashing, and risk assessments
In the classic sci-fi thriller Face Off, John Travolta has facial transplant surgery to become Nicolas Cage, and then Nicolas Cage goes through the same medically believable procedure to become John Travolta. Basically, they switch faces. For reasons never fully explained, John Travolta (and then Nicolas Cage as John Travolta) does this thing where he runs his hand over peoples faces. Your initial reaction is probably, “That’s weird!” Your second reaction, viewing it with your food safety glasses on, is probably, “Is it risky?”
Both are understandable reactions! Clean hands are a major component of GAPs, and contaminated hands can pose a produce safety risk. If you do an internet search for “good agricultural practices hand washing,” organizations like the USDA, land grant universities, and the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association point out that everyone handling, growing, or packing produce (even visitors and family members) should wash their hands after using the bathroom, eating, smoking, and/or any other time they may have become contaminated. As you watch Nicolas Cage rub his hand over people’s faces again and again and again, it could make you wonder about the importance of both his clean hands and clean hands on the farm.
Before we dive too deep into the riskiness of the hand move, let’s discuss ways to assess risk and use risk-based thinking in a farm environment. The CONTACT Produce Safety “Risk-Based Thinking for Agricultural Food Safety” webinar key takeaways document, hosted by Dr. Don Schafner of Rutgers University, provides a few lessons about assessing risk regarding food safety. It says that “assessing risk involves the scientific process of identifying how ‘big’ a risk is” and that “risk-based thinking can provide focus and clarity to more effectively manage and produce safety risks.” The last key takeaway is that “risk-based thinking approach in produce safety can help risk managers (i.e. growers) make more science-informed decisions about risk reduction.”
How can the advice on risk-based thinking for agricultural food safety help us consider the risk of the Cage hand move? Dr. Schafner, and his co-host Dr. Ben Chapman of NC State, tackled this issue on their podcast “Risky or Not.” It might be worth stressing that while they are both food safety experts, you may not want to go to them for film recommendations. Dr. Chapman strangely says that, when trying to remember the last time he saw Face Off, he “is not sure if the movie is still good or not.” (Editor’s note: It is.) When assessing the risk of dragging your fingers across a face, they say that it’s not risky on a typical day, under normal circumstances. Dr. Schaffner does say, however,, “it’s weird.” But, as both Dr. Chapman and Dr. Schaffner point out, as long as there’s nothing risky on the hands – for example, the hands are not contaminated by raw chicken – it’s not risky. In the farm environment, if your hands are visibly clean, and nothing has potentially contaminated them — like a harvested tomato covered in bird poop — it’s likely very low-risk to handle produce, touch a food contact surface, or drag your hands over someone’s face as long as you have their consent. But, if you have decided to run your hands down someone’s face and over their lips, it would be a good agricultural practice and good idea to wash your hands after.
Con Air, Water, and Risk Assessment
Dr. Schaffner and Dr. Chapman rarely go on tangents on their podcasts, but they did take a slight detour when discussing Face Off to share that they both agree that Con Air is a great movie. In Con Air, Cage gives an Oscar-worthy performance as an army ranger who, almost immediately after being discharged, ends up in a bar fight with some bullies that leads to him being imprisoned and eventually onboard a plane with some very bad people. But, before any of that happens, and within the first minute of the film, he rushes home to see his wife not by plane, train, or automobile, but as the only visible passenger on an incredibly beat-up boat. It’s easy to watch this scene and assume that this use of water makes sense except . . . it really makes no sense at all! He is supposedly RUSHING home to surprise his wife, and instead of using any readily available and highly efficient modes of transportation, he seems to take the slowest -and maybe riskiest – way possible.
I must have watched this scene twenty times, and it never bothered me, but when screening this timeless gem of a film for a friend, they quickly pointed out how absurd Cage’s use of water is. This is actually a great way to assess the risk of your practices or ideas on your farm – invite other people over to your farm to see your systems, like your agricultural water systems, and use their insights to look at your systems with fresh eyes and new perspectives. You can also do this one on your own, like reviewing your agricultural water system at least once a year and documenting if there are ways to reduce any potential produce safety risks in the way you are using pre-harvest, harvest, and postharvest water. You may notice it’s time to replace that old drip tape, remove the weeds around your wellhead, or stop using overhead irrigation when applying surface water on your leafy greens. All those are ways to implement good agricultural practices to reduce your risks.
By taking that slow and beat-up boat, Cage reminds us of the importance of assessing the risk of how we use water and the importance of checking in with friends and colleagues, like an Extension agent, to see if there might be a lower risk and more effective way to do something. If Cage had run his travel plans past a friend or conducted a risk assessment on his mode of travel, he may have concluded that taking an old, rusty boat across potentially rough waters to see the love of his life was neither the most effective nor risk averse way to travel . . . but it may have been the visually coolest.
National Treasure and Training
In one “National Treasure,” truly the pinnacle of the adventure heist genre, Cage plays a treasure hunter/cryptographer whose first and middle names are Benjamin Franklin. Throughout the film, there are countless high-intrigue moments as he handles historical documents and artifacts in a low-risk way to ensure they don’t get damaged. On the farm, local fresh produce is just as valuable as a 1789 George Washington Inaugural Campaign Button and should be handled to reduce the risk of physical damage, which can lead to bacterial growth and contamination.
For most producers, when considering the risks on your farm, you may see that one of the biggest risks – but also what can bring many benefits – is the GAPs training you’ll provide to employees, volunteers, visitors, family members, and anyone else who handles produce. Even if you own the farm or are the produce safety, you should have GAPs training as well. Cage, even though he is one of the world’s leading treasure hunters, receives a crucial lesson that even he needs training during one the edge-of-your-seat moments in the movie. Cage, in an attempt to reveal invisible ink to read a hidden message on the Declaration of Independence, starts to wildly squeeze a lemon and splatter lemon juice all over the precious document. Dr. Abigail Chase (played by Diane Kruger) stops him before he can make a major mistake. The reason? In her words, they need “someone who is trained” to do it. It’s the same on the farm. Before anyone implements a good agricultural practice, like cleaning and sanitizing a food contact surface, they should be trained on how to do that practice properly. If not, they could potentially wildly spray a hose in your wash/pack area and potentially splatter pathogens all over your floors and food contact surfaces.
Commitment to community
Cage often takes measures to protect friends and community, like stealing cars to get his brother out of a jam or give Cher a reason to believe in love again, and farmers take measures to protect friends and community every time they implement GAPs. (For more insight on food safety as community care, please listen to Community Care is Good Food Safety with Anita Adalja.) The next time you watch Cage in a classic film like The Rock where he uses his knowledge of science to lower some pretty intense risks; think of how you can employ produce safety science and good agricultural practices on the farm to reduce your risks and provide quality produce to your community.
For even more food safety resources, visit the Local Food Safety Collaborative website and the Food Safety Resource Clearinghouse for a curated source of food safety guides, factsheets, templates, and more. Don’t forget to follow LFSC on Facebook and Twitter for updates on the latest food safety news.
This project website is supported by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award TBD totaling $1,000,000 with 100 percent funded by FDA/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by FDA/HHS, or the U.S. Government