California produce growers propose safety seal

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Consumers buying California-grown lettuce and spinach would be able to check for a safety seal of approval under an industry-backed proposal formulated in the wake of recent E. coli outbreaks, the Fresno Bee reported Friday, Dec. 15. A draft of the proposal was sent last week to lettuce shippers and packers, according to the newspaper.

The plan, which is voluntary and only open to shippers and packers, was designed by the Western Growers Association and other trade groups, with the California Department of Food and Agriculture taking an advisory role. A second, mandatory program is being developed by the industry for lettuce and spinach growers, industry representatives told the Bee.

The grower-shipper program would be paid for by charging participants up to 5 cents per carton of produce, according to the draft plan. A “certification mark,” or label, would be affixed to the produce to show that it was handled, shipped and sold using industry-developed best practices, according to the Bee. Those best practices are still being developed, the newspaper reported; rules could include water and soil testing and increased washing of produce, all verified by periodic visits from state, federal and county inspectors.

“It’s a huge deal,” Tim Chelling, spokesman for the Western Growers Association, told the Bee. “Name any industry in recent history that has invited government to come in and regulate them — that is what this amounts to.” Spurred on by September’s deadly Salinas Valley-based E. coli outbreak, the Western Growers Association in October had promised “enhanced and mandatory food safety processes on all aspects of growing, packing, processing and shipping of spinach and leafy greens.”

The packer-shipper program requires approval by a substantial percentage of the companies in the state’s packing and shipping industry, which includes those in charge of bagging, storing and trucking leafy green produce. There are about 120 packers and shippers, with 25 handling a majority of the state’s leafy green produce, according to the Bee.

Though the draft of the shipper-packer plan describes a voluntary program, industry representatives say that, in effect, companies will be forced to participate to satisfy consumers who are demanding peace of mind. “We feel that through market pressures, it will automatically become mandatory,” Rayne Thompson, director of national affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation, told the Bee.