Leafy green food safety program proving successful

It has been five months since the voluntary Leafy Greens Marketing Order went into effect to ensure that lettuce, spinach and other leafy vegetables produced in California are free of E. coli and other food-borne diseases.

So far so good for the 111 grower/packers who signed up to comply with the sanitations detailed in the marketing order. Western Growers says 100 percent of the volume of spinach, lettuce and other leafy green commodities in California are covered by the new enhanced food safety procedures.

There has been no major summer crisis like the one last year that sickened 200 people nationwide in more than 20 states from a virulent strain of E. coli. Three deaths were confirmed from the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 on spinach by the Center for Disease Control.

It was the 20th food borne illness outbreak in the past nine years. Producers and handlers escaped most of those relatively unscathed. However, the spinach E. Coli 1517 incident almost wrecked the California and Arizona leafy green industry.

It is still suffering, according to Western Growers Hank Giclas, director of public affairs for Western Growers, the driving force behind the voluntary marketing order.

Mexico still will not accept California spinach. Sales of not just spinach, but bagged salads were off 30 percent for a long time, Giclas told vegetable pest control advisers from California and Arizona at a recent consultants conference sponsored by Bayer CropScience in San Diego.

Some reports indicated sales losses of as much as $100 million in spinach alone and sent the Western produce industry into a tailspin, and a damage control mode to restore consumer confidence shattered by the outbreak that generated more than 20,000 newspaper articles focusing on food safety.

Giclas told the consultants that best production practices have been developed within the marketing order. However, they are still being formalized and are “evergreen … ever changing and will be that way over time.”

Growers are paying $4.5 million via a 2-cent per carton assessment to run the marketing order, which is using USDA specialists to monitor growers and handlers. Giclas said the program is costing growers an additional average of about $50 per acre or 25-cents per carton to comply with the regulations and recordkeeping.

Local California ag commissioners are playing no formal role in leafy green marketing inspections. Giclas said USDA is the lead monitoring agency because this is a national issue.

While some best management practices are still being formalized by the board governing the marketing order, several key management practices are in concrete. One is the mandatory testing of all water used before, during and after producing a crop. These must meet strict EPA water quality guidelines.

Secondly, the marketing order forbids the use of raw manure and biosolids on leafy vegetable crops. It also mandates that soil amendments be analyzed before use, particularly those containing animal products.

The marketing order also outlines procedures for sanitation of tools, worker hygiene, washing of product and other specific regulations.

Best management practices and risk assessments are recommended when producing leafy greens near animal operations or composting. However, Giclas said for now no buffer zones are recommended between fields and domestic animal operations.

Wild animals are another matter, particularly since feral swine and other wild animals were implicated in last summer's illnesses and deaths. Growers are fencing more fields and removing habitat to preclude wild animal intrusion into fields.

Ironically, this is a key issue with some environmental groups who protested the loudest during the E. coli outbreak. Giclas said some of these same groups are now protesting the fencing and habitat removal to keep wild animals out of the nation's leafy green crop, saying these measures are interfering with the migratory routes of wild animals.

Giclas said this remains a “key issue” in finalizing best management practices guidelines with environmentalists.

In gearing up for the start of the new state food safety marketing order, USDA inspectors conducted practice audits of operations. The Western Growers public affairs director said no major violations were discovered.

However, the biggest problem encountered during these trial audits was a lack of documentation of steps and training conducted to ensure a pathogen-free crop.

“Growers and handlers were performing but not reporting. Documentation will be at a premium” if this program is to assure buyers, consumers and others that leafy greens and other vegetables produced in California and Arizona are safe.

This documentation and adherence to best management practices also presents opportunities to the pest control industry and its consultants and advisers.

“This focus on food safety may make the role of the PCA more valuable” in testing water, soils and product to make sure it is pathogen-free and conducting environmental assessments of farming practices.

The marketing order is voluntarily, but once a grower/handler signs up, the rules are mandatory.

These regulations apply only to California. However, since most of the major vegetable shippers from California's coastal areas also operate in the desert during the winters, the practices under the marketing order are likely to be followed with the winter vegetable deal.

Also, as Western producers point out, growers in other states and nations are under no mandatory best management practices program. Yet, outbreaks of food-borne diseases due to eating tainted vegetables from elsewhere will also impact California and Arizona production.

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