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Growers Group Ready With Own Rules to Prevent Contamination

HEARD ON THE BEAT / FARMING AND FOOD

August 13, 1997|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bombarded in recent months by reports of E. coli in unpasteurized apple juice and cyclospora in Guatemalan raspberries, the nation's diners have understandably become a bit jittery about the safety of fresh produce.

That, in turn, has put growers, packers, shippers and processors on alert that their relatively unregulated industry could be in for some stepped-up government monitoring--and reputation-bashing from food shoppers--should safety problems escalate.

Hoping to prevent further outbreaks of microbial contamination and boost public confidence, the Western Growers Assn. next week will announce voluntary guidelines for minimizing such crises. State Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman will be on hand when the guidelines--the first of their kind--are unveiled Tuesday in Sacramento.

Irvine-based Western Growers, whose 3,100 members in California and Arizona account for half the nation's production of fresh fruit and vegetables, began working with the International Fresh-Cut Produce Assn. of Alexandria, Va., in November to identify where contamination might occur and to develop measures to reduce risk every step along the way. In part, the move was designed to assuage the growing concerns of regulators coping with food-borne illnesses.

"We could see that processed vegetables and other [products] were getting further scrutiny from the government," said Greg Flood, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Grimmway Farms Inc., a big Bakersfield producer of bagged, loose and baby-cut carrots.

As chairman of the International Fresh-Cut Produce Assn. and a member of the Western Growers Assn., Flood initiated a series of meetings between the industry and state and federal regulators, including representatives of the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the state Department of Health Services.

Separately, the FDA will ask a panel to devise national guidelines for produce, but that report is still months away, agency spokesman Arthur Whitmore said.

Unlike meat, which was always viewed as much more vulnerable, produce in the past had been deemed quite safe--as, indeed, it usually is. But in recent years, as the government has urged Americans to consume more fresh fruits and vegetables for health reasons, instances of microbial contamination have risen.

Even so, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 97% of food-borne illness is associated with the handling of food--in processing plants, restaurants or the home--as opposed to farm practices.

The guidelines--dealing primarily with quality of irrigation and wash water, worker sanitation and hygiene, manure management in the fields, sanitation of processing equipment and cooling requirements--will be detailed in a 40-page booklet for county agricultural commissioners, growers and any other interested parties. Industry representatives and regulators also will hold seminars on the guidelines next month in Salinas, Santa Maria, Fresno and Bakersfield.

Matt McInerney, senior vice president of Western Growers, said Grimmway already has an exemplary safety program. Its 640,000-square-foot plant in Lamont, near Bakersfield, is the world's largest fresh-vegetable processing plant.

Flood said his company is eager to share its safety practices with others.

"We're concerned about the bottom third in the industry," he said. "A negative food story impacts all of us."

Veneman said the food-safety program is an example of "a very important partnership with public and private sectors looking at how can we put together voluntary standards to do the most we possibly can to ensure the public's health."

But consumer advocates aren't so sure. "Voluntary guidelines are better than nothing, but we may need more than that," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. "It's still a weak response to a series of outbreaks that have caused nationwide concern."

Bumper Crop

Family farms are dying on the vine nationwide, but California seems to be bucking the trend. The USDA reported recently that the number of small farms--those with annual sales of $1,000 to $9,999--has risen by 2,000, to 35,500. Meanwhile, another segment under siege, medium-size farms (with yearly sales of $10,000 to $99,999), fell by 1,500 in the year ended June 1, to 28,500, whereas the number of big farms with more than $100,000 in sales rose by that number, to 20,000.

Jim Tippett, a USDA statistician based in Sacramento, speculated that the boom in farmers markets has provided an opportunity for more small-scale farmers. Likewise, the growth of natural food chains such as Wild Oats and Whole Foods has given farmers an outlet. Meanwhile, said Brad Parks, a USDA statistician in Washington, city dwellers are increasingly moving into rural areas and buying a few acres to give farm life a try.

Martha Groves can be reached by e-mail at martha.groves@latimes.com or by fax at (213) 237-7837.

Martha Groves can be reached by e-mail at martha.groves@latimes.com or by fax at (213) 237-7837.

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