Growers struggle to keep crops safe

first_imgCalifornia’s growers and distributors responded to threats of government regulation by developing their own safety guidelines – including procedures for testing irrigation water, teaching field workers about hygiene, and keeping fields free from livestock or wild animals that might spread bacteria through their droppings. Nearly every packer and distributor of leafy greens signed an agreement to buy only from growers who follow these rules. The agreement also created an industry marketing board to set standards and hire state inspectors to check for compliance. Still, the standards fall short of the stricter oversight and stiff penalties proposed by one legislator after last year’s E. coli outbreak – the ninth that federal officials traced to lettuce or spinach from California’s central coast region. Farm-district representatives blocked that proposal. Instead, the agreement offers packers and distributors a seal of approval if they and their suppliers follow the guidelines. (The industry backed off plans to put the mark on retail labels after critics said it would be confusing for consumers.) “The goal is not to be punitive,” said Scott Horsfall, the marketing board’s new executive officer. “The goal is to get the entire industry to raise the bar on food safety.” In addition to the board’s guidelines, many restaurant and supermarket chains are imposing even stricter rules – and sending their own inspectors to check the fields. Over the summer, farmers installed miles of new fencing to keep animals out of fields in the Salinas Valley and neighboring San Benito County. Some hired extra staff to keep up with the new rules. Martin said he and other growers have begun posting daily reports on a secure Web site where buyers can monitor their efforts. All told, Martin estimated the new measures are adding $100 in extra costs per acre of cropland. Lower demand since last year’s outbreak has kept prices flat, but Filice predicts the costs eventually will be passed to consumers. Packers and distributors have also added safety measures, such as extra washing and testing of produce, tools and packing equipment. Natural Selection Foods, the San Juan Bautista company that packaged the tainted spinach last year for Dole Foods, now tests samples from every 1,600-pound lot of greens delivered to the company’s packing plant to check for E. coli and salmonella. It tests additional samples before each lot of processed greens is shipped out. Dole, which ended its relationship with Natural Selection, now puts labels containing a microchip and radio frequency identification antenna on bins that carry produce from the field to packing plants. This lets the company trace where any contaminated produce was grown and track any delays in processing or refrigeration. But despite the new precautions, last month’s recall shows that safeguarding food is still a complex challenge, with some experts arguing that more needs to be done. While officials are still trying to determine the source of salmonella, Metz Fresh spokesman Greg Larsen said the recall shows the effectiveness of the company’s testing and product tracking systems. No illnesses were reported. Jean Halloran, director of food policy at Consumers Union, sees it differently. Noting that some of the spinach had been shipped before the test results were known, Halloran argued that the industry needs more government oversight, including a mandatory “test and hold” requirement for all companies. Natural Selection, for example, holds all its greens until test results are back. It’s a difficult call, said Trevor Suslow, a plant pathologist at the University of California, Davis. Getting even preliminary results can take 24 hours, and growers have just a few days to ship produce across the country before it loses freshness. On the same day Metz Fresh received the preliminary result, the company notified its wholesale customers. It waited five more days to notify the public. Larsen said the company felt safe waiting for more lab analysis to confirm the presence of salmonella because officials had already impounded more than 90 percent of the spinach involved. But he acknowledged the possibility that some could have been sold to the public. Green crisis Here are recent episodes of contaminated leafy greens from California: September 2006: At least three people die and 200 people are sickened from E. coli bacteria on fresh spinach from San Benito County. It is the ninth E. coli outbreak blamed on leafy greens from the Central Coast. December 2006: An outbreak of illness from E. coli sickens 71 patrons of Taco Bell restaurants on the East Coast. Though early reports blamed green onions, officials said the pathogen was carried on lettuce grown in California. August 2007: Monterey County grower Metz Fresh recalls more than 34 tons of spinach after a sample tested positive for salmonella. No illnesses are reported.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Industry leaders said the recall by Metz Fresh shielded consumers and proved the new measures work. But critics said the incident illustrates the weakness of the new standards. They said the company never should have let the spinach leave the packing plant. Although the produce industry has drawn up guidelines for growing and handling leafy greens, consumer advocates complain they are too broad and lack teeth. Meanwhile, some smaller and organic growers say some of the new standards are expensive and unrealistic, and environmentalists worry they will harm wildlife and waterways. And while just about everyone agrees that safety efforts have increased, there is no foolproof formula for preventing food-borne illness. “We’re doing everything we can to ensure food safety,” said Bob Martin, who oversees 6,000 acres of cropland as general manager of Rio Farms in Monterey County. “But there’s no guarantees in life.” By some estimates, the nation’s produce industry suffered $100 million in lost sales and other costs tied to last year’s spinach outbreak – when at least three deaths and 200 illnesses were traced to E. coli bacteria in fresh spinach from San Benito County. SAN JOSE – San Benito County farmer Kay Filice has put up fences to keep animals out of her crops. She tests water samples monthly from every well and pipeline on her 1,400 acres. And she keeps a thick binder of paperwork to show inspectors from the 10 distributors who buy her crops. “We’re trying to make these fields as sterile as we possibly can, in a natural outdoor environment,” Filice said while touring one of her fields outside Hollister, where green bursts of new romaine lettuce dotted an expanse of rich brown dirt. A year after tainted California spinach drew the blame for a nationwide outbreak of illness and deaths, just about every grower and packer in the state’s $12 billion produce industry has adopted new procedures aimed at keeping leafy green crops free from deadly pathogens. So far, there have been no reported outbreaks traced to California lettuce or spinach this year. But when a Monterey County grower recalled more than 34 tons of spinach on Aug. 29, after a sample tested positive for salmonella, it renewed the debate about whether the farm industry is doing enough. last_img

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