Leafy greens safety program serves as
of Article: http://www.cfbf.com/agalert/AgAlertStory.cfm?ID=1319&ck=1EE3DFCD8A0645A25A35977997223D22
Date: June 3, 2009
By Kate Campbell
On the outskirts of Hollister, farm manager Mark Wright drives past a lush
spinach field, studying the still dewy leaves. Making his morning field
rounds, he's deciding on the optimum time for harvest.
Rewind to September 2006 and Wright
recalls that this same spinach field was being disked under because an E.
coli outbreak had been traced to spinach fields in San Benito County. At
the time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cautioned consumers to
avoid all fresh spinach and the market collapsed. He plowed under as many
as 4 million pounds of harvest-ready spinach.
Today, efforts to address food safety in
California farm fields have been on fast-forward. The Leafy Greens
Marketing Agreement—informed by rigorous science and government
oversight—has near universal commitment from leafy greens growers
throughout the state. And, after nearly three years of work, the agreement
is seen as a successful food safety model by other commodities, other states,
the nation and international importers.
Already Arizona has adopted the
California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement model and Florida is
considering doing the same. There's a national coalition of produce
marketing groups and agricultural associations forming now to extend the
agreement nationwide, as well.
Both Canada and Mexico have made it clear
they will only accept fresh leafy greens from California grown under the
requirements of the LGMA.
At the same time there's food safety
legislation pending in Congress and discussion about redefining federal
oversight of the nation's food safety system. This summer, House Energy and
Commerce subcommittee members will tour leafy greens fields on the Central
Coast to learn more about requirements under the LGMA.
The California agreement covers the
production and processing of leafy greens for about 115 volunteer members,
both farmers and processors, who've agreed to use the carefully defined
food safety practices and submit government audits and inspections. The
participants produce more than 95 percent of all leafy greens grown and
processed in California.
"In light of what happened in 2006,
there was an immediate response in the fields," Wright said, donning a
hair net and striding toward a harvester and field crew in a Filice Farms
field of romaine lettuce. "As required by the LGMA, we have strict
field sanitation procedures and we've restricted access to our fields and
really enforce it.
"These days we're far more aware of
who's entering and leaving our ranches," he said, checking a bucket of
disinfectant hanging from the harvester's conveyors. Workers use the
solution to rinse cutting knives as they slash away romaine leaves to get
to the tender romaine hearts consumers prefer.
"Food safety is our highest
priority," said San Benito County farmer Kay Filice. A San Benito
County Farm Bureau member and former chair of the Grower-Shipper
Association of Central California, she said the top goal for farmers is to
prevent the risk of contamination.
For Filice Farms, she said that includes
complying with the LGMA metrics. The agreement requires thorough and
ongoing training for employees and supervisors, stressing field hygiene and
food safety measures. Supervisors conduct risk assessments, sanitary
surveys and water testing for every field prior to planting.
"In addition, there is ongoing and
constant surveillance throughout the growing and harvesting period to
monitor any potential environmental pressures," Filice said.
"Added to that are audits by the California Department of Food and
Agriculture. Trained auditors examine 184 checkpoints, request
documentation of our food safety actions and order any corrective action
The approach is proving popular with consumers. In a 2008 research survey,
89 percent of consumers had a favorable opinion when they were told about
the food safety measures and mandatory government audits. And, 70 percent
of consumers said the program increased their confidence in leafy green
Joe Pezzini, chief operating officer of
Ocean Mist Farms in Castroville, has been at the forefront of the leafy
greens food safety effort. He is chairman of the LGMA and has supported
expansion of the food safety system to other commodities and other states.
Evaluating the economic impact of the E.
coli incident on spinach three years later is difficult, Pezzini said,
given the current economy.
"A lot of the bagged leafy-green
products are down generally because of the economy," he said.
"But given that, spinach is about back to where it was before the
outbreak. We based that on both acres planted and sales volumes. So it has
taken that long for the business to come back."
The LGMA program is operated with money
from grower assessments—initially 2 cents per 24-count carton. The
assessment, however, was lowered this season to 1.5 cents to reflect
improved program operating efficiency.
One issue that continues to add cost and
complexity to growing leafy greens, Pezzini said, is the requirement by
some produce buyers for more layers of food safety inspection. In some
cases, he said, these additional third-party inspections go beyond the
measures supported by science and appear designed to bolster marketing
"What we've been trying to do with
the LGMA is help buyers understand the standards and the science, the best
growing and processing practices," Pezzini said. "We've had some
wholesale buyers say that based on the required practices in the LGMA,
they'll no longer require third-party audits."
Pezzini said there will be tours of farms
on the Central Coast offered to representatives of major produce buying
groups in July.
He stressed that the LGMA will continue
to evolve as science advances. But, its focus will remain on a compliance
and trace-back plan, water use, soil amendments, environmental conditions,
worker hygiene and harvest practices.
Scott Horsfall, LGMA chief executive
officer, said leafy greens growers can be proud about what's been done to
ensure food safety in their fields.
"We've been asked to work with
groups from around the country on a national leafy greens marketing
agreement," Horsfall said. "We want to take the model that has
been created here and put it in place on the national level."
Horsfall said right now a broad coalition
is being formed to create a national program and that "there's a fair
amount of momentum behind the concept. We hope the official process will be
launched very soon."
Back in the field near Hollister, farm
manager Wright walks along with harvesters as romaine is cut from the
field. The farm produces 12 different crops, each following field hygiene
He said many of the field sanitation
practices used for the farm's vegetable crops have been transferred to
orchards, as well. He looks past the lettuce fields to the rows of cherry
trees beyond a buffer strip. The bright red fruit burdening the limbs is
nearly ready for harvest.
"Food safety is a major part of our
program and we've incorporated safety practices into all levels of our
operation," he said, kneeling to check trace-back stickers on cartons
ready to be shipped to buyers. "And at the end of the day, we take
some of what we harvest home to feed our own families. This is our
livelihood, but it's also what we eat. It has to be safe."
Online information on the California
Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and the latest developments in food safety
can be found at www.caleafygreens.ca.gov.
A draft of the proposed national Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement is
available at www.wga.com.