IN THE WAKE OF THE 2006 spinach recall, the produce industry launched multiple efforts this year to help ensure that spinach and other leafy greens are safe to eat.
Not surprisingly, it was growers in California — where the bulk of the leafy greens consumed in the U.S. are grown — that led the way, with the development of a Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement shortly after the first of the year.
Since then, Arizona has followed suit, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering a federal marketing agreement or marketing order to cover leafy greens. USDA is currently reviewing industry and consumer input on leafy greens regulation it received during a public comment period.
Meanwhile, California's industry-driven effort serves as a model for others.
“The overriding objective of the LGMA is protecting public health by reducing any risk of foodborne illness in California-grown lettuce, spinach and other leafy green products,” Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, said. “The LGMA's public health goal was reached in 2007 with no reported cases of foodborne illness tied to California leafy green products.”
The two largest produce trade associations — Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., and United Fresh Produce Association, Washington — both support federally mandated regulations similar to those outlined in the California marketing agreement.
“We're committed to doing whatever it takes to ensure a safe product,” said Lorna Christie, PMA's senior vice president. “We favor regulations that are federally mandated, risk-based and commodity-specific. Food safety has always been our top priority.”
Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of United Fresh, expressed much the same sentiment earlier this year.
“We strongly support the California marketing agreement,” Stenzel told SN then.
“Long-term, we want [the U.S. Food and Drug Administration] to be in charge of setting and enforcing the rules.”
Meanwhile, officials at the Western Growers Association, which drafted and helped develop the California marketing agreement, pointed out that they worked hand-in-hand with FDA and the California Department of Public Health on the specifics of the marketing agreement.
“For one thing, we took some general or nonspecific regulations already in place and made them more specific,” said Hank Giclas, vice president for strategic planning, science and technology at the Irvine, Calif.-based group.
“For instance, we took a regulation that said something like, ‘Make sure water quality is good for its specific use,’ and we said, “Here's how you do it: You do a sampling every 30 days and make sure it contains no E. coli.”
While membership in the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement is voluntary, it is then mandatory for members to follow specific regulations. The California Department of Food and Agriculture provides oversight.
“This is definitely a positive step,” said Dick Spezzano, principal, Spezzano Consulting Service, Monrovia, Calif. “The right government agencies will need to review it to see if the regulations are tough enough.”
PMA's Christie said her organization is well aware that it's a multistage approach. “Effective federal regulations enforced by FDA is a final goal for us — enforced by a well-funded and well-manned FDA.”