Dueling Plans Target E. Coli Outbreaks

The Associated Press
Wednesday, January 24, 2007; 6:25 AM

LOS ANGELES -- A California legislator is butting heads with farmers over his proposed regulations to protect lettuce, spinach and other crops from replays of the E. coli outbreaks that killed three people and sickened hundreds of others across the country in recent months.

State Sen. Dean Florez plans to introduce a bill Feb. 1 that calls for a system to track produce from fields to store shelves and forces growers to further protect crops from contaminated water and stray animals that can spread bacteria.

The legislation is proving to be a hard sell to state farmers who could have their crops condemned if they're caught violating its rules.

The Western Growers Association, which represents the fresh produce industry in California and Arizona, is preparing a self-regulating scheme to head off Florez, who represents the agriculture-rich southern San Joaquin Valley.

Their plan would require handlers and shippers to buy from growers who can show they protected crops against E. coli and other contamination.

"We're the guys who understand our business and what needs to be done," said Imperial Valley spinach and lettuce farmer Jack Vessey, who supports the industry-led approach.

Florez invited the industry to adopt its own rules as his bill moves through Sacramento.

Then, he said, "once our regulation comes into effect, there will be very little cost for them."

The new regulations promoted by Florez would be tougher and more precisely worded than the current state guidelines that urge growers to be mindful of bacteria sources but specify no punishment for problems.

The California agriculture industry, which produces about three-quarters of the nation's lettuce and spinach, took a huge financial hit from the recent E. coli outbreaks.

Investigators linked a strain of E. coli that killed three people and sickened more than 200 others in September to wild pigs that may have spread the bacteria in a Salinas Valley spinach field.

Spinach was pulled from grocery shelves as authorities investigated the source of the problem.

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