California senator introduces new food-safety bills

| 2/2/2007

The push to improve food safety standards for leafy greens continued Thursday in California, where three bills that would impose mandatory food-safety regulations on the state’s lettuce and spinach growers were introduced in the state’s Senate.

The bills – introduced by state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter – would make the California Department of Health Services responsible for regulating all leafy green produce in the state, including the authority to “quarantine, recall or destroy infected produce.”

This could be extremely important to truckers – including a number of OOIDA members – who were left with few or no options for their potentially contaminated loads, during an E. coli outbreak that was traced back to California bagged spinach in September 2006.

Many of those truckers were stuck with the financial burden of disposing of the potentially contaminated produce, or weren’t paid for their rejected loads.

Joe Rajkovacz, regulatory affairs specialist for OOIDA, said food safety guidelines have traditionally excluded the transportation angle, and Florez’ request for public input about his bills gives OOIDA the opportunity to have trucking issues brought to the table.

“There needs to be in writing somewhere that the shippers should be held accountable and should pay a trucker’s shipping charges when a recall has been ordered,” Rajkovacz said. “Truckers should not be held financially responsible if they have to turn around with a load that has been recalled – they should be paid for their mileage.”

Rajkovacz said shippers should also be responsible for dumping costs when produce is recalled.

One of the bills would order the state to establish mandatory “good agricultural practices” for growers of leafy greens and would prohibit the use of creek water for irrigation or raw manure for fertilizer. Growers would be subject to criminal misdemeanor charges for breaking the rules and could face stiff fines of up to $25,000 or jail time.

The third bill would create a trace-back system to speed up the investigative process and “pinpoint” the source of contamination in the food chain.

“This could force the industry to take a closer look at improving potential hazards in loading areas,” Rajkovacz said. “This could improve the working conditions for drivers.”

Florez’s proposed legislation comes less than a week after the California Department of Food and Agriculture announced a voluntary marketing agreement for leafy green handlers, which would allow the produce industry to self-regulate.

In a separate move, United Fresh Produce Association President Thomas Stenzel sent a letter to California Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kawamura that said his group plans to “pursue comprehensive federal oversight of all fresh produce.”

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer