This summer marks two years since the E. coli spinach outbreak sickened hundreds nationwide and led to store shelves devoid of leafy greens. In the interim, new food safety scares have arisen, and President Barack Obama’s administration has placed a priority on the issue, leading to a host of new bills in Congress. What steps have the industry and government taken to improve commodity and leafy-greens safety, and what regulations can we expect to see in the future?
In concert with the regulatory and academic communities, the leafy-greens industry created a leafy greens marketing agreement in 2007. Accounting for virtually all winter lettuce sold in the U.S. and all lettuce exports, California and Arizona quickly adopted the agreement, which is essentially a voluntary best-practices understanding among handlers, not growers.
“Canada and Mexico won’t accept produce unless it comes from a signatory, nor will many buyers across the country, so it’s almost a condition of doing business,” says Hank Giclas, a spokesman for the Western Growers’ Association, based in Irvine, Calif.
Handlers are responsible for assuring that growers who supply them adhere to good agricultural practices, including the use of safe water and secure handling of animal waste.
The only growers who can reasonably opt out are small operations that sell either direct to consumers through markets or direct to restaurants, without a middleman, Giclas says. “Since the California marketing agreement was adopted, there’s been a move to create a federal leafy greens marketing agreement,” says Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association, based in Newark, Del.
However, a one-size-fits-all approach to food safety, whether it comes in the form of marketing agreements or other federal legislation, is a concern to many sectors of the industry, including organics, sustainable agriculture practitioners and smaller family farms.
On the federal level, there are several proposed bills: H.R. 875 from Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., proposes a Food Safety Administration within the Department of Health and Human Services and would require daily inspections of high-risk slaughter plants and farm-to-fork coverage of domestic and imported foods. The requirement that all foods be traceable concerns small farmers, who worry about the costs entailed in such an approach. H.R. 759, the Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act from Rep. Rosa DeLaura, D-Conn., would cover drugs and cosmetics, as well as food, and proposes similar traceability and hazard-analysis requirements. S. 510 from Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., focuses solely on food but sets out the same basic requirements as H.R. 759.
Impact on organics, small farms
“Most people feel these pieces of food safety legislation will be folded together,” says Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, based in Santa Cruz, Calif. “And at a hearing in mid-May, House Agriculture Committee members said they’d take into account family farmers and sustainable agriculture. But most of the [food safety] problems are coming from agribusiness factory farms, and organics already has field-to-table traceability protocol. When they review food safety, are they going to take into account suspected carcinogenic pesticides and herbicides? What about antibiotics and run-off contamination? Agri-industrial responses are not going to fly for the organic family farmer.”
A number of industry groups are working to ensure that small farms and organics are considered when and if federal legislation is passed. In the meantime, the combination of state agencies, federal agencies and industry guidance creates a potentially confusing situation for growers trying to adhere to safe practices.
“You have good agricultural practices from U.S. Department of Agriculture, from FDA and from various third-party certifiers working for industry,” says Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, based in Washington, D.C. “That’s not an argument for one super-standard, but rather an argument for the incredible diversity of systems for different types of agriculture. I think people are beginning to agree that we need different tiers and rules for different sectors of food and agriculture.”