Although the Dec. 15 deadline set by eight of the country's
largest supermarket chains and distributors to growers and packers of leafy
greens has technically been met, many of the "best practices" tentatively
outlined in the proposal to ensure safer food safety procedures following the
spinach and E.coli outbreak still need to be developed.
A draft of the proposal was sent out this week to shippers
and packers, just as consumers are facing another E. coli outbreak, tentatively
linked to lettuce at popular taco restaurants.
These new best practice safety standards have left many with
unanswered questions as to how much it will cost and how soon consumers can
expect to see these new safety standards in place. Questions as to where
truckers will fall in the development of new food safety standards also exist.
Tim Chelling, spokesman for Western Growers, who, along with
other trade groups, formulated the voluntary plan, said the industry-backed
best practices marketing agreement is a "huge deal."
While growers and packers are primarily involved in the
development of safer food safety practices, Chelling said the produce industry
wouldn't rule out listening to the transportation industry's concerns in regard
to new best practices and said that public meetings have been planned to
address these concerns.
"The food safety crisis is being taken extremely seriously
and everyone is proceeding as quickly and collaboratively as possible to get this
thing resolved and solved and put in place in the most stringent food safety
regulations in the history of the state," he said. "We are proceeding as fast
as we can independent of that letter - these safer standards would have
happened even if that letter had never happened."
The top draw to attract shippers and packers of leafy green
produce to sign up for the marketing agreement is the inclusion of a
"certification mark" on the produce to show that best practices are being
followed in the handling and shipping process.
Initially, the program was to be a mandatory program, but
the initial draft shows it to be voluntary and only open to shippers and
packers. The grower-shipper program would be paid for by charging participants
up to 5 cents per carton of produce, according to the proposal's draft.
This program comes as a result of deadly E. coli outbreak
based in Salinas Valley, CA, that sickened 200 and left three dead. In October,
Western Growers promised "enhanced and mandatory food safety processes on all
aspects of growing, packing, processing and shipping of spinach and leafy
Nancy Lungren, deputy secretary of public affairs for the
California Department of Food and Agriculture, told Land Line the CDFA
will take an advisory role in the marketing agreement process. She said the
produce industry's step to self-regulate its food safety practices is a much
better option than having government intervention and possible regulation. She
said the CDFA will work with the USDA in California to train enforcement agents
who will conduct on sight inspections at growers' and packers' facilities.
"I don't think we know what the proposed costs are," she
said. "This is an industry-driven piece of action in order to bring about
confidence back in the marketplace. Without everyone getting onboard, I know
the industry has a gun at their head at this point and everyone right down to
the trucker who is involved in the shipping and the packers are integral to it.
One break in the link and it's not going to work."
Chelling said a hearing on the best practices plan is
scheduled for Jan. 12, 2007, at the Monterey County Fairgrounds in Monterey, CA.
The source of the most recent outbreak, which has sickened
148 people, is still being investigated, although shredded lettuce eaten at two
popular taco restaurants is suspected.
- By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer