Industry Grapples With Safety Standards

IRVINE, Calif. Produce industry groups are running into snarls as they work to develop a more stringent set of safety standards for lettuce and leafy greens. What we don't want to do is have multiple different approaches to it, said Tim York, president of Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Cooperative, who led a group of retailers in the call to industry groups for uniform standards. The Food Marketing

IRVINE, Calif. — Produce industry groups are running into snarls as they work to develop a more stringent set of safety standards for lettuce and leafy greens.

“What we don't want to do is have multiple different approaches to it,” said Tim York, president of Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Cooperative, who led a group of retailers in the call to industry groups for uniform standards.

The Food Marketing Institute, National Restaurant Association and Food Safety Leadership Council all have different approaches, so developing a coordinated system for the entire industry is the challenge, he said.

In the wake of the E. coli outbreak linked to spinach, a number of retail buyers directed the trade organizations to work together to develop standardized safety recommendations and requirements, and come up with a mechanism for certifying the requirements were being met. This would be done through a marketing agreement and marketing order.

The United Fresh Produce Association, the Produce Marketing Association and Western Growers Association are developing standards “that the regulators on the state and federal level believe is a good protocol for lettuce and leafy green vegetable food safety standards,” said Tim Nassif, chief executive officer of WGA.

However, complying with the standards is bound to increase prices, he said.

“To give us the safest food possible, we need to be able to pass those costs all the way through the food chain to the consumer,” he said. “They can't expect us to do all these new things and the only people who pay for it are the producers.”

He said he also does not want new rules to put California produce at a competitive disadvantage.

“If we're going to have these kinds of standards, the buyers have to enforce the same standards nationally and internationally,” he said. “You can't just put California at a competitive disadvantage by having the most expensive product out there and then go out and buy the cheapest produce they can get because they can make a lot more money off of it. If they're really concerned about the consumer, then they're going to need to make everybody play by the same set of rules.”

The group has also asked for standardized food safety requirements and auditing criteria for melons, tomatoes and green onions by Feb. 15, 2007.

York said he's seen draft guidelines based on the Good Agricultural Practices program, which were close to being completed by the December deadline that was set by the retailers in their letter to the trade groups. Nevertheless, he has not yet seen any Good Manufacturing Practices guidelines or a certification process.

“So it doesn't look like everything is going to be completed [by the deadline] that we asked for,” he said. “However, they are moving in that direction and that is encouraging to us.”

The WGA, along with the PMA and the California Farm Bureau Federation, has hired a group of scientists from Intertox to help the groups establish the proper tests that should be taken and the contamination points that should be addressed, Nassif said.

In a letter to York, officials at United Fresh and the PMA said there will be flexibility in achieving compliance with the standards, once they're established.

“Some believe a market-based audit certification system would be effective; others believe a mandatory system required under a marketing agreement would be effective; and government has certainly not ruled out the possibility of more direct regulation in some cases,” the letter said.

The Food and Drug Administration and the California Department of Health Services have also provided technical assistance.

“To date, the industry has shared some potential criteria with FDA, and we anticipate seeing how the new criteria they propose are incorporated into the lettuce supply chain guidance,” FDA official Sebastian Cianci told SN.

Some responsibility for safe food lies in the hands of food companies and consumers, WGA and United have emphasized. WGA is working with PMA on a public education campaign.