Will introduce legislation to enhance training, monitoring and enforcement
As someone who has advocated strongly for enhanced food safety laws in the wake of deadly e-coli outbreaks, I believe a plan by industry to implement a “voluntary marketing agreement” does little to reassure consumers the leafy greens they eat are safe. Without state regulations and enforcement action, I believe the proposal amounts to little more than the fox watching the hen house.
Following the deaths of three people across the country from contaminated California spinach, I announced in September that I would develop a California Produce Safety Action Plan to introduce in the upcoming legislative session. The measures will address all identified threats to food safety, with a focus on better training and more stringent monitoring.
Industry representatives, looking to head off mandatory regulations and the enforcement actions that come with those, have put forward a proposed “marketing agreement,” which would essentially mean that those who voluntarily chose to use the best practices adopted by the industry-heavy “Leafy Green Handler Advisory Board” and pay a fee could put mark of certification on their produce.
The industry contends that consumer demand for certified produce would force growers to participate in the program to remain competitive, but Florez argues that “most Californians are so accustomed to buying leafy greens without a sticker they would never know something was missing.”
In addition, the proposal does not address other high-risk produce such as onions and green onions, which also grow close to the ground and have been identified as the source of past food-borne disease outbreaks.
I believe there is a big difference between marketing a product to get people to buy it and improving a product so that people should buy it. The public is not going to be reassured by a program that is run by a board of industry members who stand to profit from their actions, and which does not even fine those who fail to comply. We need the teeth of regulation and enforcement, covering all high-risk produce, to give them that peace of mind. With two major outbreaks in just months, the time for an industry-only response has come and gone.
I have a number of concerns with the proposed marketing agreement put forward by Western Growers, and we will have an opportunity to sit down, discuss and consider the merits of the proposal during a hearing of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee on January 4.
The proposal mentions “best practices” and “periodic” inspections but leaves both to be defined later by the Leafy Green board. That board of between seven and 13 members would be appointed and would not require Senate confirmation. If that industry-laden Board agrees, the California Department of Food and Agriculture may appoint one representative of the general public. None of these members would be required to possess any special qualifications, such as knowledge of soil science.
In addition, the board has no requirements for public meetings, and members are subject to a confidentiality agreement. Even the board’s meeting minutes would be available for review.
I am moving ahead with plans for legislation to regulate growers and packers just like any industry which provides food to the public. Restaurants and meat distributors are not left to self-monitor with a “marketing agreement” due to the obvious health risks to consumers, and I see no reason for an exception at the very source of the produce we all eat.
The California Produce Safety Action Plan will begin with the following elements to help protect consumers of fresh produce across this nation continue to enjoy their five a day with confidence:
• Requiring food producers to code their products so that those products can be quickly traced in the event of a food-borne illness outbreak.
• Requiring that food producers and processing plants have procedures in place to prevent and reduce food contamination. This would include wildlife fencing, enhanced worker sanitary procedures and water standards.
• Requiring regular inspection of domestic food facilities with frequency based on risk. Additional inspection on farm, processing and retail outlets with this high-risk profile.
• Giving CDFA full recall authority. If the food safety system is centralized in one agency, the agency could quickly respond to an outbreak.
• Barrring the use of raw manure as fertilizer during the growing season.
• Implementing more stringent monitoring of manure composting practices to make sure that pathogens are destroyed.
• Requiring more frequent testing of water used for irrigation at the source and output entry ways.