Produce industry rolls out 'best practices' as new E. coli scares emerge

| 12/15/2006

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 greens."

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