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IRVINE, Calif. -- Western Growers Association based here delivered on a promise to plant the seeds of change with a proposed California State Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement that would establish an inspection program to bolster safety standards for the handling of fresh spinach and other greens.
Western Growers said the voluntary marketing agreement, the first in a series of steps the industry is taking to restore consumer confidence in the wake of a food safety crisis triggered by an outbreak of e. Coli in spinach last September, is a major milestone in the process to create state-enforced and administered regulations regarding food safety.
The agreement's rules call for all types of lettuce, arugula, cabbage, and spinach to be certified with an official seal of approval, similar to a USDA label on meat.
"Last year we made a commitment to declare war on food borne illnesses in the fresh produce industry," said Tom Nassif, Western Growers' president and c.e.o. "This is the opening salvo in that war. We have said that food safety is a sacred trust between the people in our industry and the public. We take that responsibility extremely seriously," Nassif continued, adding that the industry-funded initiative is part "of our commitment to put our money where our mouth is and take positive action to raise the standards of food safety in this country."
The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) - which would facilitate and enforce the guidelines - is at present seeking about 130 companies that handle green, leafy produce to voluntarily agree to the procedures by Feb. 5. The rules cover all types of lettuce, arugula, cabbage and spinach to be certified with an official seal of approval similar to a USDA label on meat.
However, the United Fresh Produce Association sees the voluntary California marketing agreement a bit differently, saying that while it is helpful, it is no substitute for federal oversight of clear, consistent science-based standards that are applicable to all produce grown anywhere in the United States, or imported into the country.
In a letter sent to its members earlier this week, United Fresh co-chairs Maureen Marshall and Mark Millers said mandatory produce safety standards, backed by sufficient federal oversight, is the sole acceptable solution. The Washington, D.C.-based trade group executives further said industry standards can't depend on marketing programs or voluntary certification that are not the same as commodity-specific food safety practices based on the best available science.
"We know scientifically that we cannot promise there will never be another outbreak of foodborne disease," said Miller and Marshall. "But we also know that in the future, we must be able to stand side-by-side with government to reassure the public that together, we have done everything we know to implement and comply with strong mandatory government standards to protect public health."
California Sen. Dean Florez is opposed to the marketing agreement. "We have already tried warnings and self-regulation, and we have had more outbreaks with lettuce and spinach than with any other food crop," said Florez in news reports. Florez said he plans to introduce three bills next week that would require buffer zones to separate crops from feedlots and dairies, mandate bacterial testing programs for irrigation water and dictate the size and durability of fencing to keep wild and stray animals from the areas where vegetables grow.
The proposed California marketing agreement would utilize a uniform inspection program to verify that leafy greens handlers -- the middlemen through whom product moves from field to retail -- are complying with their own standards. If sign-ups indicate ample participation, CDFA would then certify the agreement.
An assessment of up to 5 cents per carton of produce would fund the inspection program to ensure compliance. Violators would be tossed from the program and prohibited to use the state seal of approval that would appear on the labels of lettuce and spinach grown and processed according to the standards.
Nassif said the agreement would be followed by a marketing order, which would verify and enforce standards among all leafy greens growers. The primary distinction between a marketing order and a marketing agreement is that participation in the order is mandatory, and participation in the agreement is voluntary. However, once handlers commit to the agreement, compliance is mandatory.
CDFA will appoint an official 13-member Marketing Agreement Board, which will be charged with implementing the agreement, all elements of which will be exercised under the authority of the State of California.
Optimistic that the marketing agreement will be a model for the nation - even the world -- Nassif said he hopes "retail and foodservice buyers will agree to buy only from handlers covered by the agreement. Calling it "a giant step for our industry," albeit merely a first step, Nassif said Western Growers will follow up with "additional measures and regulations on the state and federal levels to protect the consuming public."