Setting High Standards

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Going on three years after the spinach industry faced massive losses due to a tragic outbreak of E. coli that caused three deaths and sickened hundreds, the industry is beginning to rebound. Though spinach consumption and sales are not quite up to pre-outbreak levels, leaders of the leafy greens industry are optimistic that with more stringent food safety measures in place, spinach consumption will continue to rise.

“Like all produce industry members, leafy greens producers are concerned about the current state of the economy and the impact on demand for their products,” says Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA). “The industry is sizing up demand and markets, and we may see some fluctuations in production as a result. In general, the industry feels that demand of spinach has still not totally recovered from the 2006 outbreak. Many handlers estimate that sales are still off by about 5% to 10%.”

The important lesson learned from the outbreak in late 2006 was that while food safety was a priority before, more needed to be done, Horsfall says. In addition to many developments in food safety growing practices and technology that ensures food stays clean through the distribution process, the industry has done a good job of setting up a system of checks and balances.

“The 2006 outbreak, as well as subsequent food safety issues affecting other products, has raised awareness throughout the produce industry of the importance of doing everything that can be done — from growing through harvest, processing, and shipping — to ensure that the highest standards for food safety are being observed.”

A Proactive Approach

LGMA is one “important manifestation” of the attention placed on food safety in the aftermath of the 2006 E. coli outbreak, Horsfall says. The organization was created by a group of California growers in 2007 to “collectively address the need to raise the bar for food safety,” he says. Operating with oversight from the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), LGMA is a mechanism for verifying through mandatory government inspections that growers follow accepted food safety practices for lettuce, spinach, and other leafy greens. “It was important for the industry to be able to assure consumers, its customers, and others that they were willing to commit the resources and the effort to address the problem,” Horsfall says.

To date, nearly 120 handlers representing 99% of the volume of California lettuce, spinach, and other leafy greens products have joined LGMA, simulta-nously committing to handling and selling products in compliance with food safety practices accepted by LGMA.

“Membership in the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement is voluntary; however, once a company joins, all of its requirements become mandatory and are backed up by California law,” Horsfall says. “By becoming certified by LGMA, handlers can assure their customers and consumers that they are doing all that they can to provide leafy green products grown according to LGMA-accepted practices and subject to mandatory government inspections.”

A recent survey, conducted in late 2007, revealed that LGMA members tripled their investments in food safety since September 2006, with total investments reaching $71 million since that time, according to Dennis Tootelian, director of the Center for Small Business at California State University in Sacramento.

“The survey shows individual companies have, on average, doubled the number of staff people dedicated to food safety activities,” Tootelian said in a 2008 press release about the survey. “The average LGMA member now spends more than $604,000 per year on food safety activities — that is nearly triple the amount they were spending prior to September 2006.

Consumer research also validates the approach taken by the leafy green industry and LGMA, Horsfall says. “A national survey LGMA conducted in 2008 showed that when the program is explained to them, 89% of consumers stated that the LGMA program of mandatory government audits gives them more confidence in the safety of leafy green products.”

The LGMA Service Mark assures consumers buying California leafy greens that any product bearing the mark has been grown to the food safety practices accepted by LGMA. Only growers who have been verified through government audit to be in compliance with mandatory food safety practices of the LGMA and certified by CDFA inspectors can use the mark. Consumers also can verify that handlers are members of LGMA by checking the members section of LGMA’s Web site.

Setting An Example

Producers in Arizona and Florida are currently working to develop programs modeled after LGMA for their respective states, and Horsfall says he hopes the formal process for creating a national program will begin in the next couple of months.

“From a food safety standpoint, LGMA has become a model program for lettuce producers in other states and there is also discussion about the implementation of a nationwide program,” Horsfall says. “The California industry continues to work hard to avoid a recurrence of
the type of tragic outbreak that occurred in 2006. While the extra food safety efforts undertaken throughout the industry appear to be working, LGMA remains committed to continually improve and evolve its food safety systems.”

What is next for food safety technology? A great deal of research is underway industry-wide, Horsfall says, which will continue to ensure the safety of leafy greens products. Examples include using irradiation or electronic pasteurization to eliminate all bacteria on spinach. The technology was approved by FDA in August.

“We are encouraged by the amount of research being done into food safety at the Center for Produce Safety, the Leafy Greens Research Board, and the major land grant universities, as well as by private companies, processors, and other entities,” he says. “This research will drive the development of new technology and practices. The more we learn about how these pathogens enter products and become established in the food supply, the more effective the means of dealing with them will be.”

LGMA Online

Download an audit checklist and accepted food safety practices of the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA).

Laura Drotleff is managing editor of Greenhouse Grower and Today's Garden Center.

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