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California and the West

State OKs certification program for leafy crops

February 08, 2007|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

California leafy vegetables farmers, still reeling from disease outbreaks linked to their produce, will soon be able to attach seals to their veggies saying their produce is state certified.

"We think this will be the first of a series of actions to restore consumer confidence and enhance food safety," said Tim Chelling, spokesman for Irvine-based Western Growers, the farm trade association that was the main proponent of the marketing agreement.

California agriculture officials on Wednesday certified a voluntary food safety program for lettuce, spinach and other leafy vegetables after gaining agreement for the plan from 70% of the state's processors and shippers of the greens.

The new regulations would create an inspection program to verify that leafy greens handlers are complying with a set of still-to-be established food safety standards.

The rules are part of a so-called marketing agreement developed by the leafy greens industry with the help of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Specific regulations now will be set by the state-appointed board of the marketing agreement and dictate that the shippers purchase produce only from growers who also agree to abide by new farming rules.

The agreement is a response by growers and shippers to a series of disease outbreaks linked to California produce. In two of the most recent incidents, 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.

California has about 900 farms that grow spinach and lettuce, crops that are worth $1.6 billion a year, and accounts for about 70% of domestic production.

Although most in the produce industry support the move by California to improve food safety, many believe it is only the first step. The United Fresh Produce Assn., a national trade group, recently called for federal regulation of the produce industry.

State Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) doesn't believe the voluntary nature of the marketing agreement goes far enough to improve food safety and wants the Legislature to enact stricter regulations.


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