Food Safety

Food Safety

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.

Leave a Reply

Featured Stories

Insect & Disease UpdateDon’t Wait For The Other Fruit To Drop [Opinion]
December 21, 2014
With all the positive vibes seeming to flow from the Florida citrus industry, why is everyone still so nervous? Read More
CitrusAg Land Value Goes Back To The Future
December 20, 2014
Good ground and longevity are the best positions moving forward. Read More
VegetablesSeminis Hosts Growers For Its 2014 Southeastern Field Day
December 19, 2014
Seed company showcases new varieties available now and in the pipeline. Read More
CitrusFeed The People With Food And Food For Thought [Opinion]
December 19, 2014
Educating the general public about agriculture is a daunting task that can be accomplished one bite at a time. Read More
CucurbitsNew Product Takes Aim At Nematodes
December 19, 2014
NIMITZ receives EPA and Florida registrations. Read More
Crop ProtectionSuccess Sans Methyl Bromide Could Prove Costly
December 19, 2014
Economic factors must be accounted for when seeking a suitable replacement. Read More
VegetablesEnza Zaden Cuts Ribbon For New Florida Vegetable Research Facility
December 18, 2014
Seed company shows off new digs and new varieties at its Myakka City field station. Read More
VegetablesRispens Seeds Highlights Their Latest Vegetable Varieties
December 18, 2014
For more information, contact: Rispens Seeds 1357 Dutch American Way, P.O. Box 310, Beecher, IL 60401 708-946-6560; 888-874-0241; fax: 708-946-6115 Read More
Protected Agriculture2014 Marks The 50th Anniversary Of The Double-Poly Greenhouse [sponsor content]
December 18, 2014
Double-poly greenhouses revolutionized the greenhouse industry back in the 1960s, opening the way for developments that still impact the industry 50 years later. Read More
CitrusSouthwest Florida Citrus Bus Tour Yields Learning Opportunity
December 18, 2014
Find out what Florida Grower editor Frank Giles saw and heard during Peace River Valley Citrus Growers Association's annual outing. Read More

The Latest

Insect & Disease UpdateDon’t Wait For The Other Fruit To Drop [Opinion]
December 21, 2014
With all the positive vibes seeming to flow from the Florida citrus industry, why is everyone still so nervous? Read More
CitrusAg Land Value Goes Back To The Future
December 20, 2014
Good ground and longevity are the best positions moving forward. Read More
VegetablesSeminis Hosts Growers For Its 2014 Southeastern Field D…
December 19, 2014
Seed company showcases new varieties available now and in the pipeline. Read More
CitrusFeed The People With Food And Food For Thought [Opinion…
December 19, 2014
Educating the general public about agriculture is a daunting task that can be accomplished one bite at a time. Read More
CucurbitsNew Product Takes Aim At Nematodes
December 19, 2014
NIMITZ receives EPA and Florida registrations. Read More
Crop ProtectionSuccess Sans Methyl Bromide Could Prove Costly
December 19, 2014
Economic factors must be accounted for when seeking a suitable replacement. Read More
VegetablesEnza Zaden Cuts Ribbon For New Florida Vegetable Resear…
December 18, 2014
Seed company shows off new digs and new varieties at its Myakka City field station. Read More
VegetablesRispens Seeds Highlights Their Latest Vegetable Varieti…
December 18, 2014
For more information, contact: Rispens Seeds 1357 Dutch American Way, P.O. Box 310, Beecher, IL 60401 708-946-6560; 888-874-0241; fax: 708-946-6115 Read More
Protected Agriculture2014 Marks The 50th Anniversary Of The Double-Poly Gree…
December 18, 2014
Double-poly greenhouses revolutionized the greenhouse industry back in the 1960s, opening the way for developments that still impact the industry 50 years later. Read More
CitrusSouthwest Florida Citrus Bus Tour Yields Learning Oppor…
December 18, 2014
Find out what Florida Grower editor Frank Giles saw and heard during Peace River Valley Citrus Growers Association's annual outing. Read More
Fruits6 Food Trends For 2015
December 17, 2014
University of Florida experts predict what will be cooking for the upcoming year. Read More
VegetablesReed’s Seeds Showcases Their Latest Vegetable Var…
December 17, 2014
For more information, contact: Reed’s Seeds 3334 NYS 215 Cortland, NY 13045 607-753-9095; fax: 607-753-9511 rsjackie@twcny.rr.com Read More
CitrusStudy: Florida Citrus Valued At More Than $10 Billion
December 17, 2014
Industry continues to have large impact on the state’s economy. Read More
Apples & PearsNovember Cold May Hurt Washington Orchards
December 17, 2014
But it’s too early to tell if well-below-normal temperatures will increase tree mortality. Read More
NutsAlmond Growers Lose Trees In Storm
December 17, 2014
Last week’s welcome rains in California knocked down trees, especially older ones. Read More
NutsAlmond Conference Draws Record Attendance
December 17, 2014
Nearly 3,000 industry professionals attend 42nd annual event in Sacramento, CA. Read More
Insect & Disease UpdateManage HLB From The Bottom Up
December 17, 2014
Finding the right balance between the roots and shoots is critical to disease mitigation. Read More
VegetablesVariety Trials 2014: Seedway
December 17, 2014
As part of American Vegetable Grower’s (AVG) 2014 variety trial coverage, we visited Seedway’s seed trial at Spiral Path Organic Farm in Loysville, Read More