Produce industry in a dither over safety standards

| 2/1/2007

In September 2006, many truckers, including some OOIDA members, were stuck with the financial and logistical responsibilities of disposing of potentially contaminated spinach. Some were not paid for their loads of spinach that weren't even part of the recall, because no regulations are in place to protect truckers in situations where produce has been recalled.

Although there appears to be agreement in the produce industry that new food safety standards need to be developed to prevent future E.coli outbreaks, no one seems to be able to agree on whether the industry should be allowed to regulate itself.

Still reeling from that E. coli outbreak - which sickened more than 200 people and left three dead - large supermarket chains sent California growers a letter strongly "urging" growers to clean up their act in order to boost consumers' confidence in leafy greens.

On Jan. 24, the California Department of Food and Agriculture announced sign-ups for the state's 135 produce handlers in the state interested in participating in a voluntary marketing agreement for leafy greens. The proposed marketing agreement is a collaborative effort by the Western Growers Association and the CDFA.

In return for participating in the marketing agreement, a seal of approval or a "certification mark" would go on produce sold by handlers taking part in the agreement. Enforcement power would jointly fall to inspectors in the CDFA and the USDA, according to Steve Lyle, a CDFA spokesman.

"We currently have 20 inspectors that have undergone training and will have another 10 trained in the next few weeks," he said.

In a separate move on Jan. 25, United Fresh Produce Association President Thomas Stenzel sent a letter to California Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kawamura that said the United Fresh Produce Association plans to "pursue comprehensive federal oversight of all fresh produce."

This, Stenzel said in the letter, "would go a long way to building and maintaining public confidence in our products by adopting strong and rigorous standards such as those planned in the leafy greens agreement."

Joe Rajkovacz, regulatory affairs specialist for OOIDA, said the state marketing agreement is at best "a face-saving gesture by an industry motivated by legal and economic concerns," but agreed with Stenzel's statement to Secretary Kawamura that federal oversight is necessary to regulate the produce industry from "farm to table."

"Federal oversight would recognize more players within the food chain than just the growers themselves, and would hold more entities responsible for food safety practices within the food chain," Rajkovacz said. "You can't let an industry regulate itself - that's like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse."

- By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer