Seasonal food-safety costs for California leafy greens growers more than doubled in the year after the September 2006 outbreak of E. coli in spinach, according to a survey by the University of California Small Farm Program. On a per-acre basis, these costs were lowest for the largest farms.

Information from the survey will be presented at hearings in consideration of a national leafy greens food-safety program, to be held by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The UC Small Farm Program survey is the first to ask leafy greens growers specifically about food-safety costs after the implementation of the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA).

The LGMA was created in 2007 as a response to the 2006 E. coli 0157:H7 spinach outbreak. The marketing agreement is a voluntary program for California handlers of lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens. Farmers who want to sell their leafy greens to LGMA handlers must also comply with LGMA food-safety provisions. An estimated 99 percent of leafy greens sold in California are covered under the LGMA requirements.

Many small-scale leafy greens growers who only sell directly to consumers, chefs and independent grocers are not subject to the LGMA.

In the survey, growers reported their seasonal food-safety costs increased 127 percent, from an average of $24.04 per acre to $54.63 per acre. Because it appears that growers may have ignored some costs when responding to the survey – e.g., some labor costs and owner's time – the combined real costs of seasonal and one-time food safety improvements could exceed $100 per acre.

The survey also found that costs per acre were consistently lowest for the largest-sized growers with revenues over $10 million, who were also more likely to hire food safety specialists to manage their farms' compliance.

"In California, we see that smaller farms are at a cost disadvantage under LGMA to the largest leafy greens growers – specifically those that have annual revenues over $10 million," said Shermain Hardesty, director of the UC Small Farm Program and co-author of the study.

To view the full study, visit http://ucanr.org/sfp/leafy-greens.