Following on the heels of a deadly E. coli outbreak linked to spinach and a salmonella outbreak linked to restaurant tomatoes, the produce industry has taken steps to enact more stringent food-safety procedures. "In essence, the industry has invited the government to come in and regulate them and enforce food-safety guidelines. That's an unusual and major step by any industry," said Tim Chelling, a spokesman for the Western Growers Association, a trade group based in Irvine, Calif., that comprises all California growers and most Arizona growers.
The September spinach outbreak has been traced to Natural Selection Foods, a packer for Dole, Earthbound Farm and several other brands. The October salmonella scare, which sickened hundreds of people in 21 states, is already over, the Centers for Disease Control said Oct. 31.
In light of these recent issues with produce safety, a consortium of produce buyers representing major grocery chains, including Safeway and Wegmans, issued an open letter to produce industry trade groups, calling on them to quickly develop new, enforceable food safety standards.
The letter asked the Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh Produce Association and Western Growers to create a supply-pipeline safety plan for lettuce and leafy greens. The letter laid out expectations for the plan, including standardized food-safety requirements for all growers and processors and input from industry research scientists and academics.
Now, WGA has announced a new initiative to create a marketing agreement and market-order process for leafy greens. "We already had a leafy green protocol, but nothing approaches this kind of serious commitment made by the Western Growers board," Chelling said.
After meeting with regulators and third-party scientists to develop the protocol, the WGA board will then proceed to a vote of its members. If the marketing order passes, it will be given to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for enforcement. Chelling said the order would allow the USDA to impose sanctions, cease and desist orders and fines against any grower found out of compliance. Chelling said the marketing order could be voted on and put in place as early as the end of 2006.
It's expected that all growers and packers of leafy greens would sign onto the marketing order, since buyers would not be likely to purchase greens from a grower that didn't comply with the stricter standards. "One thing we don't want to see is buyers who switch to other providers who don't have the same rules in order to save a nickel a box," said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for PMA, based in Newark, Del.
PMA represents growers and packers as well as buyers, including several of the supermarket chains that signed the open letter. "The Western Growers Association proposal for a marketing order is one of the options out there," Means said. "But whatever standards are adopted, you'll have customers who want something different, with standards in excess of the basic."
One such customer is Earthbound Farm, based in San Juan Bautista, Calif. The company announced it will conduct testing that goes above and beyond any industry-adopted guidelines, including testing the soil for pathogens prior to planting, testing all water sources for bacteria, refrigerating all greens within an hour of harvest, and testing every batch for both E. coli and salmonella.
Last month, Natural Selection Foods, the repacker linked to the E. coli outbreak, announced it would begin random testing of all leafy greens for E. coli, salmonella and other pathogens, using a third-party certifier. It is unclear whether the WGA marketing agreement, still in development, would include batch-by-batch testing as part of its proposed industry-wide protocols. "If batch-by-batch testing is effective, it will be included. If not, it won't be," Chelling said. "We want to make the standards uniform, intensify everything and enhance our current procedures when necessary."
"We can't take more outbreaks like this," said Means. "Public health is paramount. At this point, the worst-case scenario would be choosing a system that doesn't work."
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo., freelance writer.