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Produce growers respond to E. coli

Lisa Leff

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – An agricultural trade group on Monday proposed mandatory food safety guidelines for California lettuce and spinach farmers and processors, a move that would include inspections by state regulators and sanctions for violators.

The proposal by Western Growers Association, a group that represents the fresh produce industry in California and Arizona, comes in response to the nationwide E. coli outbreak traced to tainted spinach that sickened more than 200 people and killed three this summer.

Western Growers President Thomas Nassif said that calling for compulsory adherence to safety standards, which have been voluntary until now, and inviting the government’s oversight showed how seriously the industry took the outbreak – one of nine linked to California vegetables in the last decade.

“It is not normal for a business to say, ‘Please regulate us and enforce it if we don’t do the right things,”‘ Nassif said. “But that, we believe, is essential to restore public confidence.”

The effort, which would consist of binding agreements between processors and buyers that would require growers to adhere to specific safety practices, first would apply only to California’s lettuce and spinach industry, according to Nassif. The group wants it to cover farmers and processors in other states eventually “to have a uniform standard” nationwide, he said.

Nassif said the guidelines would enhance existing safety precautions for leafy greens and would cover such issues as water and soil testing, worker sanitation and “everything that is done in the field before (produce) gets to the plant.”

The California Department of Food and Agriculture, which would be responsible for enforcement, has agreed to work with Western Growers in developing a certification process that would give growers who meet the guidelines a clean bill of health, Nassif said. Farmers, processors and retailers would be assessed a fee to pay for the inspections, he said.

The state also would have the authority to sanction growers who fail to follow food safety procedures by enjoining them from shipping or selling their crops, assessing fines or seeking criminal penalties, Nassif said.

State Sen. Dean Florez, a Central Valley Democrat, said Monday that he was encouraged by the group’s proposal but said lawmakers needed to do more to make sure vegetables grown and packaged in the state would not continue to pose a danger to public health.


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