Easing Consumer Confidence

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Like a bad penny, another food safety problem has reared its ugly head for leafy greens growers, and for that matter, the entire vegetable industry. A spinach grower from California’s Salinas Valley has voluntarily recalled 8,000 cartons of fresh spinach, even though no illnesses were reported. You can read more about the recall on page 14 of this month’s issue of American Vegetable Grower.

Last year’s E. coli-related problems in spinach were devastating. The three reported deaths and numerous sicknesses were obviously the worst news, but those of you who grow spinach also had to watch in despair (even if you had nothing to do with the problems) as your livelihood was promptly removed from supermarket shelves, discarded, and shunned by consumers for months.

This most recent incident has not been as severe, although the long-term implications could be just as problematic. Or at least you’d get that impression after reading a report issued by the Associated Press (AP) last month that took government regulators to task for not stepping up their inspection efforts following last year’s E. coli outbreak. The report, based on an AP data review, focuses on the fact that the current guidelines for food safety inspections are still voluntary, “leaving the safety of America’s salads to a patchwork of largely unenforceable rules.”

Not the most optimistic representation of how the produce industry is responding to the recent health scares. And it doesn’t get any better. “We have strict standards for lead paint on toys, but we don’t seem to take the same level of seriousness about something that we consume every day,” noted Darryl Howard in the report. Howard’s mother Betty died as a result of E. coli-related complications last year.

As you can imagine, consumer confidence in the ability of the nation’s food producers to keep their products safe would seem to be pretty low. And if the media continues to play up the fact that food safety guidelines are voluntary, it sends the message that growers don’t care enough to follow regulations.

You Can Make A Difference

In the apple cider industry, there has been a recent debate over whether pasteurization of cider products should be mandatory or voluntary. Unfortunately, when it comes to spinach and other leafy greens, the time to debate this issue has passed. As long as illnesses are being reported, regulators are going to continue to come down hard on the industry. Even if, as the report indicates, funding for safeguarding produce from foodborne illness outbreaks is nowhere near sufficient, this is something that is out of your hands.

So what can you do? First and foremost, you need to be proactive. Establish your own set of internal Good Agricultural Practices. It also helps to support programs such as the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, which uses its own voluntary food safety guidelines. You surely don’t want the government dictating what your standards should be, so it’s up to you to enact tough provisions of your own. For example, take a look at what the Florida Tomato Committee, working closely with the University of Florida, has done to implement mandatory best practices.

Earlier this year, AVG ran a six-part series on food safety, looking at issues such as worker hygiene, dealing with the media, the consequences of inaction, and more.

Brian Sparks is editor of American Fruit Grower, a Meister Media Worldwide publication.

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