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Legislation seeks to ban risky practices in growing leafy greens

February 01, 2007|Marla Cone | Times Staff Writer

A state senator from the San Joaquin Valley said he would introduce legislation today that would ban some risky farm practices and allow state officials to inspect fields where leafy greens are grown.

The proposed law follows several recent deaths and numerous illnesses that have been linked to bacteria on California spinach and lettuce.

One of three bills to be introduced by Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) would order the state to establish mandatory "good agricultural practices" for growers of leafy greens. Currently, such practices, including testing of irrigation water and bans on use of raw manure and creek water on fields, are voluntary. Growers would be subject to criminal misdemeanor charges for breaking the rules, and violators could face jail time and fines.

Another bill would establish an inspection program that would give state health officials the authority to test water, soil and crops of farmers who are growing leafy greens. It also would require the growers to pay a fee, obtain a license and identify risk factors at their fields, such as proximity to cattle and wild animals.

The third bill would create a system designed to quickly trace back contaminated leafy greens from processor to farm.

Last week, the state Department of Food and Agriculture proposed a voluntary marketing agreement with food processors and growers that would create a program to certify lettuce and spinach. Companies that signed the agreement, which was drafted by growers, would accept products only from farmers who followed food safety procedures and were certified by inspectors authorized by the agriculture department.

But Florez said the voluntary program, which would rely on the industry policing itself, was not enough to reassure consumers after 21 disease outbreaks linked to California lettuce and spinach.

"This leafy green industry, I believe, is absolutely not able to police itself," he said. "There has been enough warning to California and to growers to get their act together. We feel very strongly a regulatory approach is the right approach to food safety."

Florez called the spinach and lettuce growers "a very rogue industry" that had not voluntarily followed safe procedures as other agricultural groups had.

He said he was expecting opposition from influential farm groups but that he believed that the Senate would agree "that we need to clean up this industry."

Ann Schmidt-Fogarty, manager of the California Farm Bureau Federation's communications and news office, said Wednesday that the bureau would not comment on Florez's proposed legislation, which is called the California Produce Safety Action Plan, before reviewing all the details.

"We have to look at the whole thing. No. 1, it's got to work, and it's got to be based on science," she said. "The bottom line is we all want food safety. No one wants to ensure that more than California family farmers."

California has about 900 farms that grow spinach and lettuce, crops that are worth $1.6 billion a year.

In two of the most recent disease outbreaks linked to California, four people died and about 300 became ill last year after eating bagged spinach grown in the Salinas Valley and lettuce served at Taco Bell and Taco John restaurants.

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