U.S. vegetable production, particularly the growing of leafy greens, changed forever in the fall of 2006 when three people died and numerous others were sickened by consuming fresh spinach. The spinach was grown in a California field, and the state’s growers quickly reacted. One year ago, they created the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, which was designed to ensure safe food practices. Arizona growers later followed suit, passing a similar agreement.
But the issue of food safety certainly isn’t limited to the West. The USDA is currently considering implementation of a federal marketing program. In the program under consideration, packers, processors, shippers, and marketers, as signatories under a marketing agreement of leafy greens, could be required to certify — and for USDA to verify — that their products are produced and handled according to best practices specified under the agreement.
Western Growers, which was instrumental in the creation of the state agreements, favors a nationwide program that would cover all growers. But not all support a national agreement, including the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF). American Vegetable Grower thought it would be best to hear both sides, and invited Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, and Judith Redmond, president of CAFF, to present their arguments.
The Western Growers Perspective
The concept of a food safety-oriented federal marketing order is new to many, so not surprisingly, we find hesitation among some of our industry brethren.They may wish to cordon off California and Arizona and their leafy greens handler marketing agreements. This is not realistic. As we have seen, produce buyers are demanding compliance not only with the metrics associated with the state marketing agreements, they are also imposing new standards that are unreasonable, excessive, and scientifically indefensible, and will require produce suppliers to submit to redundant, expensive, and unnecessary food safety inspections and audits.
At the same time, some growers and handlers are lobbying hard to be exempted from state and federal food safety requirements. These small growers have argued that because they sell directly to farmers markets, etc., and have no connection to the processing industry, such a marketing order should not apply to them. However, the rhetoric that “small family” farms are less likely to sustain an outbreak is simply negligent. Yes, even “small” farms grow crops in an open environment, surrounded by wildlife that may carry E. coli, Salmonella, and other pathogens, using water from surface and underground sources, and employing people to grow and harvest their crops just like “larger” growers do. All have the same risks associated with their operations, and these same farmers supply product to schools, restaurants, and consumers throughout California as well as to processors throughout the country.
All of this paints a picture of fracture and disorder that encourages Congress to step in. Not surprisingly, multiple pieces of legislation calling for draconian regulations and enforcement on the farm have been introduced or discussed in Washington, DC. Our colleagues in other associations and other regions of the country must understand this before it is too late. Cost aside, legislation is always political in nature, and when it comes to food safety, there is no room for politics.
For any industry-led food safety plan to be successful, the entire leafy greens community, from California to New Jersey, must unify together and embrace stringent, science-based standards, meaningful audits, and government oversight. Like we have demonstrated in California and Arizona, the most effective, expeditious way to accomplish this nationally is through a federal marketing order for handlers administered by USDA. The time element cannot be underestimated. Like in California, the leafy greens industry must take action now, because if we fail to answer the call, we will indeed be faced with costly, onerous legislation that will undoubtedly drive many producers out of business.
A federal marketing order for handlers, unlike legislation, has the potential to be in place in the field this year. It, unlike federal legislation, provides flexibility in terms of strengthening the science-based standards by which the marketing order would be founded — as new science is uncovered, the standards can and will be altered accordingly. It provides our industry with a place at the table as the food safety standards, audit procedures, and other regulatory processes are vetted and instituted.
Community Alliance With Family Farmers Perspective
As a grower of 250 acres of diverse fruits and vegetables for the fresh market, I am concerned that new on-farm food safety regulations will negatively impact my growing practices. My farm has staked our reputation and future on our conviction that a healthy farm ecosystem is the key to quality food. In our view, this means habitat for wildlife, soil rich in microbial activity, and reliance on nature for nutrient cycling and pest control. New food safety regulations threaten these practices, and we believe that the Marketing Agreement programs in place in California, Arizona, and as proposed nationally, are deeply flawed.
The history of Marketing Agreement programs is littered with lawsuits claiming that they don’t represent the diverse needs of the whole industry. These programs are usually created based on a vote proportional to market share, and in the highly concentrated produce industry, they can result in rules inappropriate to smaller and mid-scale businesses.
When used for food safety, the reach of the programs has been stretched far beyond the original Marketing Act purpose of regulating markets and trade. Now a small group of handlers are also regulating on-farm production practices. One example of the problems that arise when buyers dictate on-farm practices comes from the GAPs (good agricultural practices) of the Food Safety Leadership Council, a group of large buyers like Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., McDonald’s Corporation, and Walt Disney World Company. Their produce standards, published in September 2007, include a requirement to restrict access to all farm fields using “cameras, employee identification, fences with locked gates, security guards, area patrol, unauthorized entry signs, etc.”
These programs take a narrow look at food safety, attempting to eliminate all of the possible risks on farms. In California’s Salinas Valley, this approach has resulted in severe environmental disruptions. Water quality specialists, many farmers, and consumers are distraught at the apparent impasse that has developed between food safety and environmental stewardship.
When water quality personnel evaluated the environmental liability associated with the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement (LGMA) they found that there was no one taking responsibility for the content of the GAPs. The LGMA board and California Department of Food and Agriculture only claim responsibility for enforcement. This will be true of all Marketing Act Agreements that are voluntary and is another inherent problem with the approach.
As food safety regulations are developed for more and more crops, some way to reconcile different sets of complicated rules will be needed. But marketing programs are single crop by design and it will be very difficult to make this approach work for farmers who grow a diversity of crops. Stakeholders concerned about food safety should step back from these narrowly constrained marketing program approaches and consider how to control the cycle of E. coli O157:H7 as it moves through the farm environment.