Leafy greens safety program serves as national model
San Benito County farm manager Mark Wright said one of the benefits of the Leafy Greens Marketing agreement is enhanced trace-back procedures. Every carton coming out of the fields he manages has a coding sticker that can be used to help identify the day, the field and the crew.
On the outskirts of Hollister, farm manager Mark Wright drives past a lush spinach field, studying the still dewy leaves. Making his morning field rounds, he's deciding on the optimum time for harvest.
Rewind to September 2006 and Wright recalls that this same spinach field was being disked under because an E. coli outbreak had been traced to spinach fields in San Benito County. At the time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cautioned consumers to avoid all fresh spinach and the market collapsed. He plowed under as many as 4 million pounds of harvest-ready spinach.
Today, efforts to address food safety in California farm fields have been on fast-forward. The Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement—informed by rigorous science and government oversight—has near universal commitment from leafy greens growers throughout the state. And, after nearly three years of work, the agreement is seen as a successful food safety model by other commodities, other states, the nation and international importers.
Already Arizona has adopted the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement model and Florida is considering doing the same. There's a national coalition of produce marketing groups and agricultural associations forming now to extend the agreement nationwide, as well.
Both Canada and Mexico have made it clear they will only accept fresh leafy greens from California grown under the requirements of the LGMA.
At the same time there's food safety legislation pending in Congress and discussion about redefining federal oversight of the nation's food safety system. This summer, House Energy and Commerce subcommittee members will tour leafy greens fields on the Central Coast to learn more about requirements under the LGMA.
The California agreement covers the production and processing of leafy greens for about 115 volunteer members, both farmers and processors, who've agreed to use the carefully defined food safety practices and submit government audits and inspections. The participants produce more than 95 percent of all leafy greens grown and processed in California.
"In light of what happened in 2006, there was an immediate response in the fields," Wright said, donning a hair net and striding toward a harvester and field crew in a Filice Farms field of romaine lettuce. "As required by the LGMA, we have strict field sanitation procedures and we've restricted access to our fields and really enforce it.
"These days we're far more aware of who's entering and leaving our ranches," he said, checking a bucket of disinfectant hanging from the harvester's conveyors. Workers use the solution to rinse cutting knives as they slash away romaine leaves to get to the tender romaine hearts consumers prefer.
"Food safety is our highest priority," said San Benito County farmer Kay Filice. A San Benito County Farm Bureau member and former chair of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, she said the top goal for farmers is to prevent the risk of contamination.
For Filice Farms, she said that includes complying with the LGMA metrics. The agreement requires thorough and ongoing training for employees and supervisors, stressing field hygiene and food safety measures. Supervisors conduct risk assessments, sanitary surveys and water testing for every field prior to planting.
"In addition, there is ongoing and constant surveillance throughout the growing and harvesting period to monitor any potential environmental pressures," Filice said. "Added to that are audits by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Trained auditors examine 184 checkpoints, request documentation of our food safety actions and order any corrective action where necessary."
Bringing fresh leafy greens from the field to the consumer—using the best food safety practices possible under the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement—requires stepped-up field hygiene and strict adherence to science-based safety procedures.
The approach is proving popular with consumers. In a 2008 research survey, 89 percent of consumers had a favorable opinion when they were told about the food safety measures and mandatory government audits. And, 70 percent of consumers said the program increased their confidence in leafy green products.
Joe Pezzini, chief operating officer of Ocean Mist Farms in Castroville, has been at the forefront of the leafy greens food safety effort. He is chairman of the LGMA and has supported expansion of the food safety system to other commodities and other states.
Evaluating the economic impact of the E. coli incident on spinach three years later is difficult, Pezzini said, given the current economy.
"A lot of the bagged leafy-green products are down generally because of the economy," he said. "But given that, spinach is about back to where it was before the outbreak. We based that on both acres planted and sales volumes. So it has taken that long for the business to come back."
The LGMA program is operated with money from grower assessments—initially 2 cents per 24-count carton. The assessment, however, was lowered this season to 1.5 cents to reflect improved program operating efficiency.
One issue that continues to add cost and complexity to growing leafy greens, Pezzini said, is the requirement by some produce buyers for more layers of food safety inspection. In some cases, he said, these additional third-party inspections go beyond the measures supported by science and appear designed to bolster marketing claims.
"What we've been trying to do with the LGMA is help buyers understand the standards and the science, the best growing and processing practices," Pezzini said. "We've had some wholesale buyers say that based on the required practices in the LGMA, they'll no longer require third-party audits."
Pezzini said there will be tours of farms on the Central Coast offered to representatives of major produce buying groups in July.
He stressed that the LGMA will continue to evolve as science advances. But, its focus will remain on a compliance and trace-back plan, water use, soil amendments, environmental conditions, worker hygiene and harvest practices.
Scott Horsfall, LGMA chief executive officer, said leafy greens growers can be proud about what's been done to ensure food safety in their fields.
"We've been asked to work with groups from around the country on a national leafy greens marketing agreement," Horsfall said. "We want to take the model that has been created here and put it in place on the national level."
Horsfall said right now a broad coalition is being formed to create a national program and that "there's a fair amount of momentum behind the concept. We hope the official process will be launched very soon."
Back in the field near Hollister, farm manager Wright walks along with harvesters as romaine is cut from the field. The farm produces 12 different crops, each following field hygiene requirements.
He said many of the field sanitation practices used for the farm's vegetable crops have been transferred to orchards, as well. He looks past the lettuce fields to the rows of cherry trees beyond a buffer strip. The bright red fruit burdening the limbs is nearly ready for harvest.
"Food safety is a major part of our program and we've incorporated safety practices into all levels of our operation," he said, kneeling to check trace-back stickers on cartons ready to be shipped to buyers. "And at the end of the day, we take some of what we harvest home to feed our own families. This is our livelihood, but it's also what we eat. It has to be safe."
Online information on the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and the latest developments in food safety can be found at www.caleafygreens.ca.gov. A draft of the proposed national Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement is available at www.wga.com.
(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.