Produce industry still missing the point with self-regulation

| 3/16/2007

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 Association.

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 recalled.

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 growers.

"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, drivers."

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