In a Pickle Over Self-Regulation for Produce Growers

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Large handlers of leafy green vegetables, still recovering from last year's E. coli bacteria-induced recalls of packaged spinach, want U.S. permission to self-regulate the safety of your tossed salad.

An Oct. 4 Agriculture Department proposal to consider a voluntary standards program generated 3,500 comments by last week, compared with the usual handful in such cases, demonstrating that the industry isn't united. Small growers and consumer groups fear the plan gives larger rivals more control in the $2.2 billion-a-year market for lettuce and spinach.

"It's a very smart and kind of shady attempt to try and regulate themselves," Elisa Odabashian, West Coast coordinator for Consumers Union, a Yonkers, N.Y., nonprofit group, said in an interview. "Consumers are rarely protected by self-regulation."

The disagreement exposes the philosophical and financial divide between agribusiness and smaller sectors of the industry and the debate over how food safety should be regulated to restore consumer confidence in fresh produce.

The Western Growers Association in Irvine, Calif., which represents farms and companies that grow, pack and ship half the nation's produce, is pushing the idea after growers and shippers took $100 million in losses from the recalls. The plan is patterned after recent California and Arizona programs and would put a U.S. imprimatur on industry-developed "good agriculture practices."

"We are trying to take it nationwide," Tom Nassif, Western Growers' president and chief executive, said of the state agreements. "It's the strongest and best metrics in the produce industry. We are trying to give consumers what they deserve."

The goal is creation of a national safety and certification program that growers would have to abide by if they want to sell their crops to wholesalers, retailers, food-service purveyors and producers such as Dole Food of Westlake Village, Calif., the world's largest producer of fresh vegetables.

Government auditors from the Agriculture Department would verify that the protocol developed by the industry is followed. Federal penalties would be assessed for violations.

The Food and Drug Administration has primary responsibility for the safety of about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, including leafy green produce. The Agriculture Department proposal said it wouldn't supplant FDA authority to inspect farms and food processors.

Michael Herndon, an FDA spokesman, said the agency "encourages all efforts at reducing the risk of pathogenic contamination during the production and handling of leafy greens" and will discuss the proposal with Agriculture Department.

The Agriculture Department is exploring either a marketing agreement or an order, both of which are highly specialized regulatory mechanisms that have never been used solely to implement a national food-safety program.

Membership in the department's 33 marketing orders is mandatory once producers vote to design and fund one to stabilize markets, set standards and promote products. Participation in a marketing agreement, on the other hand, is voluntary. Those who choose to join are required to comply with the specifications.

Smaller growers oppose the U.S. proposal, saying local farms in California haven't been involved in outbreaks of E. coli, which can cause serious illness and death. They believe there is more risk of contamination in bags of fresh-cut greens because they must be refrigerated during processing, shipping and delivery, increasing the chance of multi-state outbreaks.

"We don't believe a marketing act program is a very good way to govern on-farm practices," said Judith Redmond, a partner at the organic farm Full Belly Farm in Guinda, Calif., and president of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, a nonprofit focused on smaller growers. "To have national rules on how my farm grows chard is problematic."

Redmond said some of the required practices would harm the environment, be too costly for small- and medium-size growers and give big growers and processors regulatory authority over the industry. Smaller growers are working on their own safety plan, she said.

The Western Growers Association said there should be no exemptions from uniform steps that growers and handlers should have to follow to certify the safety of lettuce, spinach, endive, kale, cabbage and other greens.

At a congressional hearing in May, Joseph Pezzini, an executive with Ocean Mist Farms in Castroville, Calif., and the chairman overseeing California's Leafy Green Handlers Marketing Agreement, said industry is best suited to define best practices for handling the covered vegetables.

The Consumers Union's Odabashian opposed the marketing-agreement plan in comments, saying the Agriculture Department idea isn't appropriate for addressing safety concerns. She said in an interview that the California agreement, which went into effect in July, didn't prevent two recent recalls.

Nassif said E. coli outbreaks aren't confined to bagged greens. The industry shouldn't compete on the basis of whose product is safer, he said. Nassif agreed it is tougher for small growers to comply with a mandatory standard, suggesting those costs should be passed on at the retail level.

Michael Durando, branch chief of Agriculture Department's marketing order administrative branch, said "there is no firm timeline by any means" for regulators to decide what kind of program would best reduce the risk of contamination in salad greens.

The exceptionally high number of comments -- most commodity-specific rules get two or three responses -- show the high stakes in the safety of tossed salad. "A hot-button issue might get 100 comments," he said.

Cindy Skrzycki is a regulatory columnist for Bloomberg News. She can be reached

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