While there appears to be an agreement in the produce
industry that new food safety standards for produce are needed, the debate is
heating up over whether a market-based approach or enhanced government
oversight is the best route to prevent future food-borne illnesses.
Ever since an E. coli outbreak in September 2006 that
sickened 200 and killed four people was traced back to bad spinach in
California, the produce industry and state and federal regulators have been
under intense scrutiny to improve consumer confidence in eating leafy greens.
In an attempt to thwart government regulations, the produce
industry rolled out its own voluntary Leafy Green Marketing Agreement for
Handlers in California, which was certified by the California Department of
Food and Agriculture and led by the industry-backed Western Growers
In exchange for voluntary participation in the marketing
agreement, companies would pay money to use a certification mark on their
produce in exchange for following suggested best practices adopted by the
industry-led Leafy Green Handler Advisory Board.
In California, Senator Dean Florez, D-Shafter, has
introduced the California Produce Safety Action Plan, consisting of three bills
to address problems in the food supply chain, which would have mandatory
regulations and enforcement actions. A Senate hearing on his food safety bills
is scheduled for Monday, March 19.
The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association recently
sent a letter of support for Florez' legislation in California, but also
supports the need for federal oversight to ensure and protect public health.
"OOIDA is actively pursuing solutions to food contamination
issues in the state of California and within the federal government that
directly affect produce truckers," said Joe Rajkovacz, OOIDA regulatory affairs
specialist and a former trucker who hauled produce in and out of California for
more than 20 years.
However, several key players in the food supply chain -
including produce haulers, farm workers and consumers - have once again been
excluded from the process, which is supposed to ensure produce is safe "from
farm to table."
The outbreak in September 2006 left many truckers, including
some OOIDA members, stuck with the financial and logistical responsibilities of
disposing of potentially contaminated loads of spinach. Some were not paid for
their loads that weren't even part of the recall, because no regulations are
currently in place to protect truckers in situations where produce has been
OOIDA, Consumers Union and the United Farm Workers all
oppose the CDFA's voluntary marketing agreement system, which calls for
participants to "adhere to specific food safety practices as a condition of
sale or purchase under the law," according to the Leafy Greens Best Practices.
"Industry got what it wanted and it is not a transparent
process that adequately addresses all issues related to possible sources of
microbial contamination of food," Rajkovacz said. "You can't let an industry
regulate itself - that's like putting the fox in charge of the hen house."
Along with OOIDA, Consumers Union and the UFW have expressed
similar comments about the lack of inclusion and transparency in the CDFA's
self-regulating industry approach.
"A recent public hearing held by CDFA was nothing more than
a sham, since input from both witnesses and comments filed were ignored.
Rajkovacz said. "A process was utilized that was intended to appear inclusive, but
actually excluded all relevant participants in the food supply chain such as
field workers, truckers, and consumers. Industry got what it wanted and it is
not a transparent process that adequately addresses all issues related to
possible sources of microbial contamination of food.
"They are excluding organizations and people who handle
produce every day that have such insight and knowledge in the area of food
safety, and this is a shame," Rajkovacz said. "Without field workers who pick
the produce, without truckers who transport the produce across the country,
where it ends up in stores and without the consumers who buy the produce, the
produce industry would come to a complete standstill."
OOIDA filed comments with the California Department of Food
and Agriculture in January related to an industry-led voluntary marketing
agreement and marketing order for leafy greens in the state, but those comments
went ignored by the CDFA and by the newly appointed industry-led "leafy greens"
board of directors.
Elisa Odabashian, director of the West Coast office of Consumers
Union, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, told Land Line this week she agrees that the produce industry is missing
the point by not asking for outside input in developing safer food safety
standards that will affect everybody involved in the food chain, not just the
"This marketing agreement that is being pushed through by
the industry and by the CDFA is totally being developed behind closed doors
without any input from the public or from any outside folks, and this is
wrong," Odabashian said. "We are interested in making sure there are standards
for sanitation and for safety in general, for these products from the field in
which these products are grown to the table, and that includes, obviously,
The UFW - which was founded in 1962 by Cesar Chavez and
represents thousands of farm workers - has also entered the food safety debate.
Its president, Arturo S. Rodriguez, is urging its members to speak out and
contact their lawmakers on food safety issues.
"To date, farm worker input has been left out of the
equation," Rodriguez said in a letter on the UFW Web site. "Consumer safety is
of topmost importance to us as farm workers rely on making their living by
toiling in the fields picking these crops. They handle our food before it
reaches out tables; are the ones who observe firsthand what safety practices
are or are not being followed and we believe, if trained and given a voice, can
play a key role in preventing food-borne illnesses."
James Gorny, vice president of food safety and technology
for United Fresh Produce Association, told Land
Line he agrees with OOIDA's position that federal oversight and mandatory
regulation are the only ways to deal with improving food safety standards.
"We had a discussion at our board of directors' meeting
recently and basically felt strong regulatory oversight was called for on a
national level," he said. "We feel strong regulatory oversight is needed to
make sure it provides confidence to consumers."
While he said he believes the CDFA's marketing order and
agreement is a "good start" to improving food safety standards, he said it
isn't a long-term solution to the food safety issue.
"Federal regulation is where we want to go with this in
making sure all produce is safe," Gorny said.
- By Clarissa
Kell-Holland, staff writer