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State seeks oversight of leafy crops

Processors are asked to sign a voluntary deal. Some growers want tougher E. coli rules.

January 25, 2007|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

As demands increase for stronger oversight of the food supply, California took its first steps Wednesday to regulate the state's huge lettuce and spinach crops.

A plan by the California Department of Food and Agriculture calls for processors of the leafy greens to sign a "marketing agreement," meet a set of still-unspecified health regulations, undergo compliance inspections and contribute as much as 5 cents a package to fund the program.

But one of the nation's largest produce industry associations said the state's move amounted to little more than a stopgap effort and called for federal officials to step in.

Proposals like California's to regulate the business with voluntary measures were not strong enough, Maureen Marshall and Mark Miller, co-chairs of the United Fresh Produce Assn., wrote in a letter to members.

"These standards cannot depend upon marketing programs or voluntary certification," they wrote.

Although new rules might not "be comfortable, we are convinced they are necessary to protect the future of our fresh produce industry," they added.

Federal regulation "appears to be a step in the right direction," said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer in the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "We look forward to working with United Fresh Produce."

California lettuce was the source of two outbreaks of E. coli that sickened more than 150 Taco Bell and Taco John's customers late last year. Bagged California spinach contaminated by the pathogen killed three people and sickened more than 200 in the fall.

These incidents called into question the lack of mandated cultivation standards for produce in the state, which supplies much of the nation's fruit and vegetables.

The state agency said Wednesday that it was soliciting signatures from produce processors for the marketing agreement.

Handlers who sign up commit to purchasing greens such as spinach, lettuce, endive and cabbage only from growers who follow a still-to-be-determined set of farming regulations.

Violators could be tossed from the marketing agreement and prohibited from using a state seal of approval that would adorn the labels of lettuce and spinach grown and processed according to the new standards.

Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, said the voluntary agreement was a way to quickly apply some supervision to the lettuce and spinach grown in the nation's largest farm state while the state and federal governments decide whether to impose stricter standards.

"Federal regulations can take years," Nassif said. Western Growers represents farmers, mostly in California and Arizona, who account for about 50% of the nation's produce.

But the state doesn't consider its move a stopgap, said Steve Lyle, spokesman for the Agriculture Department. "We see it as a potential solution," Lyle said.

California grows $1.5 billion worth of lettuce annually, or 75% of domestic production, according to the state. California also produces $115 million in fresh spinach, or about 68% of the national total.

Handlers and large growers are behind the effort.

"We think this is a positive step to regain consumer confidence," said Joseph Pezzini, vice president of operations for Castroville, Calif.-based Ocean Mist Farms, which cultivates 20,000 acres throughout California.

Yet others say the move by the state is too little and too late.

"We have already tried warnings and self-regulation, and we have had more outbreaks with lettuce and spinach than with any other food crop," said state Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter.)

Florez plans to introduce three bills next week that would require buffer zones to separate crops from feedlots and dairies, mandate bacterial testing for irrigation water and dictate the size and durability of fencing to keep animals away from where vegetables are grown.

The legislation calls for better tracking of produce from the fields to retail shelves. It would allow the state Department of Health Services to condemn crops for rule violations and would increase proposed inspection funding tenfold to about $20 million.

Some in the industry also want stronger regulation.

"The proposed agreement is a good first step, but we believe it should be strengthened further," said Samantha Cabaluna, spokeswoman for Natural Selection Foods in San Juan Bautista, whose spinach was linked to an E. coli outbreak last year.

Ready Pac Produce, which controls about 8% of the nation's $3-billion packaged-lettuce market, also wants regulation that "would go much farther," said Steve Dickstein, a spokesman for the Irwindale-based company.

Most of California's 135 leafy green handlers are expected to sign the voluntary marketing agreement. The state has asked them to decide by Feb. 5.

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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