MONTEREY, Calif. - Growers, packers and shippers of leafy green vegetables, still reeling from the impact of devastating E. coli outbreaks, moved this week to create voluntary food-safety standards.
But the proposals advanced by the California Farm Bureau and the Western Growers Association, which together represent the majority of leafy-greens growers and packers in the state, are already being criticized by those who doubt that voluntary measures have enough teeth. The standards include frequent testing of irrigation water, strict rules on the use of manure as a fertilizer, and fences to keep wild animals and livestock out of fields.
Steve Lyle of the California Department of Food and Agriculture says the plan is to have the program in place by spring, when harvest season begins for leafy greens: lettuce, escarole, endive, spinach, cabbage, kale, arugula and chard. There will be a package seal that participating packers can use to signal that they've met the new safety standards.
California grows 74% of the nation's lettuce and 69% of its spinach, Lyle says. The state has about 7,000 leafy-green growers and 130 handlers. Although the program would be voluntary, it would be overseen by the state in accordance with the terms of a 1930s New Deal-era law that allows farmers and food handlers to self-regulate.
Growers lost millions of dollars in three major E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks in spinach and lettuce in the fall and winter of last year. Those outbreaks resulted in three deaths and sickened hundreds nationwide. There have been 20 such outbreaks in the last 10 years.
The safety plans were hotly debated in Monterey earlier this month at a meeting attended by more than 200 farmers, packers and shippers. "We need a new approach that involves government oversight and places a stronger emphasis on ensuring that every farm and facility follows the same rules 100% of the time," said Jim Bogart, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, a trade group representing more than 300 growers, packers and shippers.
One of the more controversial proposals would require that farmers plow under a buffer zone between fields and "undisturbed, open, non-farmed land with evidence of wildlife," as well as ponds, rivers, wetlands and creeks.
But many point out that the overwhelming evidence is that cattle manure, not wild animals, is the primary source of E. coli O157:H7. A study out this month in The Journal of Food Protection found that 3.6% of beef cattle and 3.4% of dairy cattle carry the dangerous strain.
The most recent drafts of the proposal would require that buffer to be anywhere from 30 feet to a quarter-mile wide, says Linda Sheehan, executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance.
"There's no scientific support for believing that ripping out any plants alongside rivers is going to help," Sheehan says. In fact, there is strong evidence that vegetation around waterways creates a living filter that captures some of the pathogens present in animal waste, keeping them from the water that might eventually be used to water crops, she says.
Requiring farmers to plow under vegetation up to waterways could also severely degrade water quality, because plants help protect stream banks against erosion, said Daniel Mountjoy of the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the state Department of Agriculture.
The growers and food handlers have until Feb. 5 to sign up for the voluntary program. If there's enough interest, industry representatives will hammer out the details. Lyle says his department has people trained and ready to verify the standards once they're in place.
Consumer groups fear that the rules will be hammered out behind closed doors with little input from the public. "Industry self-regulation seldom protects consumers and often provides industry with cover when contamination occurs," said Elisa Odabashian, director of the West Coast office of Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports.
Some California legislators say the safety standards should be set by the state. "Should our health and safety standards be in the hands of an industry that has been the source of so many contaminations in the past?" asks Democratic state Sen. Dean Florez.
Florez, who represents the agricultural southern San Joaquin Valley, plans on Feb. 1 to introduce legislation to establish state-mandated standards. They would include bans on the use of manure as fertilizer and of reclaimed water for irrigation, and would require a testing of cured manure used by organic farms. "They (growers and packers) see this as marketing survival, and we see it as a health survival issue," Florez says.
Some farmers are leery of having state laws govern them and would rather set the rules themselves, said Jasper Hempel, general counsel for the Western Growers Association, which has more than 3,000 members in the fruit and vegetable industry.
That sentiment is not embraced by everyone in the produce industry. Tuesday, the United Fresh Produce Association announced that to regain customer confidence, the industry needs national, mandatory produce-safety standards overseen by the federal government.
The real question is whether any of these standards will really make food safer, says Doug Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University in Manhattan. Simply following current guidelines known as Good Agricultural Practices, such as providing field workers with portable toilets and testing irrigation and produce wash water for E. coli, would go a long way toward making food safer, he says.
"Every farmer has to create a culture that values food safety on each and every farm," Powell says.
By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY