It’s no news that food safety, particularly in respect to leafy greens, has been on the minds of both the produce industry and consumers alike. With the tragic outbreaks of E.coli in spinach and lettuce this fall and winter, consumers are wary and wondering what needs to be done to protect the food supply. Growers and handlers are wondering what will be required of them. The Texas produce industry is keenly interested in what happens for California in the wake of the spinach recalls. Additionally there are unprecedented changes being considered at the federal level that would remove the current restriction that FDA cannot regulate food safety at the farm level. The outcome of the proposal in California and the potential federal action will likely influence on what steps the Texas produce industry needs to take.
In response to rising concerns and the recent outbreaks, the California Department of Food and Agriculture convened a hearing on January 12 to determine if they should develop a marketing agreement to improve food safety measures. A voluntary marketing agreement, which would entrust produce handlers to follow a stricter set of best practices rules, could be followed with a mandatory marketing order to require all growers and handlers to adhere to specific rules. The marketing agreement was backed by industry trade groups such as Western Growers Association and California Farm Bureau. However, there is already an obstacle toward passing the measure, since metrics, or specific distances between crops and potential sources of contamination, have yet to be spelled out. California growers could be asked to vote on the marketing agreement without the metrics in place, and many may vote against it for this reason.
California State Senator Dean Florez (D-Shafter) plans to introduce legislation to crack down on food safety violations and shift control to the government. His bill would include measures such as unannounced farm visits, a trace-back system, and penalties for violators. Some in the industry spoke out against Mr. Florez’s plan, saying that legislators don’t understand food safety and therefore should not attempt to legislate it. Western Growers Association and the California Farm Bureau are working to develop new industry standards in an effort to head off Florez.
In breaking news last week, the United Fresh Produce Association board voted unanimously to support federal regulation of food safety for the produce industry. United’s President, Tom Stenzel, said produce safety standards must be mandatory, with sufficient federal oversight to gain consumer confidence.
The Texas produce industry would like to see flexibility in the federal regulations. One such approach would be for the FDA to set minimum standards and then develop cooperative agreements with states to address their particular needs. Cooperative agreements have been effective, as Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns pointed out in a conference with the fruit and vegetable industry advisory committee. Johanns said that since 1998, there has been a decline of over 30 percent in food borne illnesses caused by Listeria and E.coli. However, the announcement by United last week demonstrates a change in paradigm, as it seems regulation and enforcement may shift from industry self-regulation to strong federal oversight. Another trend is toward commodity-specific guidelines as opposed to the more broad-based Good Agricultural Practices. Some commodity groups may break ranks with United over its choice to back mandated regulations by FDA versus a more flexible, voluntary system.
The vegetable industry in Texas is interested in being proactive about food safety, particularly with leafy greens. Cabbage constitutes the largest acreage of leafy green vegetables in the state. Some would argue that there is less food safety risk with cabbage as compared to lettuce and spinach. Though Texas spinach was not involved in the recent E.coli outbreaks, some Texas growers were still hit with losses as a result of the associated recalls. For example, Pentagon Produce in Uvalde County, Texas, was forced to dump $250,000 worth of spinach as a result of the Salinas Valley issues last fall. The Texas citrus industry is also aware of the issue. Citrus does not carry a high food safety risk, due to its protective peel and because it doesn’t come into contact with soil or irrigation water. Nonetheless, citrus industry members are interested in working toward a plan as well. Newly elected Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples supports development of food safety programs for Texas agriculture.
So what’s next for Texas? Texas should pay close attention to what happens in California because standards may be set there that may become applicable to us. A longstanding concern of those in the produce industry is that one company’s or one state’s food safety measures will be used to imply that others not meeting the same standards are not selling a “safe” product. The FDA’s new role, whatever that may be, will be certain to have a big impact on Texas operations. Texas industry members will need to step up and begin the process of developing a more robust food safety plan to protect both consumers and our industry. We need to follow the trend toward a commodity-specific, risk-based approach that will recognize regional differences. No matter what sort of plan we develop, gaining and maintaining consumer confidence will be paramount to its success.
We all want to make our produce as safe as possible. Any effort less than this may cost us dearly. On the other hand, there has to be some common sense in all of this. Some of the proposals would be prohibitively expensive. Others may sound good but would not necessarily do much to make fresh produce safer. The trick will be to strike the right balance. The status quo may appear to be good enough because we have not seen serious illnesses traced back to Texas. In reality, Texas should react to the various proposals and develop our own instead of waiting to see what happens. The stakes are simply too high for the Texas produce industry to wait on others before we act.